AGRICULTURE Minister Michelle O’Neill believes Northern Ireland’s beef sector “would suffer significantly” if current trade negotiations between the EU and US lead to a deal, according to internal documents obtained by The Detail.
The documents also reveal concerns within her department over how to handle the issue, while other correspondence highlights poor communication within the wider Stormont government over the likely impact of the biggest EU-US trade agreement in history.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is an agreement currently being negotiated by the European Union and the United States. Advocates of the agreement say it will lessen barriers to trade in terms of market access and regulatory co-operation.
The trade talks have been widely criticised for their secrecy, but the Stormont tensions have emerged as First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are in the US for St Patrick’s Day events and as Northern Ireland prepares to vote in a referendum in June on the UK’s future in Europe.
Sinn Féin Minister Michelle O’Neill has publicly raised concerns over TTIP before, but her fears are spelt out in a previously unpublished letter obtained by The Detail under Freedom of Information legislation.
In the correspondence to EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan in December 2015, Minister O’Neill expresses concerns over “cash flow and income difficulties” for beef farmers, with the minister noting that “over 70% of all farms in the North of Ireland are involved in beef farming”.
On TTIP she adds: “Various pieces of research, including research that I have commissioned locally, indicates clearly that the beef sector would suffer significantly from the type of changes an ambitious TTIP deal could bring.”
An internal Department of Agriculture briefing document from November 2015 on issues surrounding TTIP states: “A deal would likely see both the EU and the US increase exports of agricultural products to each other (consequently, imports would rise for both). However, the net impact would likely to be in favour of US farmers (especially in beef)...”
The concerns over the implications of TTIP for Northern Ireland come as the industry is seeking to boost trade with the US in the wake of the BSE “mad cow disease” crisis that hit exports.
In March 2014 the US lifted its EU-wide BSE ban. US inspectors are expected to visit all interested member states, including Northern Ireland, in 2016 to assess their eligibility to export.
An internal department of agriculture email from December 2015, written ahead of a meeting between the minister and a US official, again referenced the TTIP issue: “The Minister is also trying to get beef from here approved for the US market again after the ban stemming from the BSE outbreak. Need to be careful that it does not appear that we are arguing for our beef to be sold on US markets while being against more US beef coming here.”
Despite the concerns within the Department of Agriculture, documents obtained from another Freedom of Information request to the government’s economic development agency, Invest NI, indicate a qualified support for potential trade opportunities in TTIP.
Invest NI falls under the remit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), a department headed up by DUP Minister Jonathan Bell.
An email from March 2014 outlined draft points for a TTIP blog by Invest NI. It stated: “Invest NI welcomes the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as a process which should help increase the level of business relationships between Northern Ireland and the United States for companies of all sizes, not just the big boys.”
In a separate Invest NI email dated September 2014, the publicly funded arms-length body responsible for job creation, notes the opportunities and the risks that exist.
The internal note reads: “Invest NI has a significant interest in TTIP, given the importance of the United States as a trading partner to Northern Ireland”.
It adds: “We would welcome continued consultation. Particularly keen to input to work on pinpointing which industrial sectors stand to benefit, as well as identifying what barriers companies face when exporting to the US, and how they could be addressed under TTIP.
“Given the importance of the agricultural sector to NI, it is imperative that the UK Government continue to work with the Devolved Administrations and the Commission to ensure that both the opportunities and risk are understood and managed effectively”.
But elsewhere, Invest NI officials appear to question the level of communication over TTIP in the Northern Ireland government.
One email from November 2014 states that “the reality is that there has not been a lot of discussion about TTIP between Invest NI and DETI [Stormont’s Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment].”
Another more recent email by an Invest NI official in September 2015 says: “I don’t think that there is really the same awareness in NI to TTIP than other parts of the UK”.
REACTION TO TENSIONS OVER TTIP
The Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister failed to respond to our FOI request in relation to information it held on TTIP within the statutory time limit of 20 working days, but said it is still considering the request.
In a statement to The Detail, Minister O’Neill said she had consistently stated concerns around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
“The secret manner in which these negotiations have taken place remain a matter of concern to me,” she said.
“New trade agreements can offer opportunities to widen our export markets, but this has to be balanced against the potential threats.
“I am pushing for safeguards to protect vulnerable sectors, especially in the current environment where incomes are low and cash-flows are constrained. There must be no change to the current ban on imports of hormone treated beef into the EU.”
The minister added: “Along with my trepidation regarding prospective negative impacts on the agri-food industry, I also have concerns about the possible detrimental impacts of TTIP on the environment, workers’ rights, consumer confidence and public services.
“It seems unlikely that a TTIP deal will be concluded in the near future, but I will continue to monitor developments and to exert further influence when most needed. Where necessary, I will push for safeguards for vulnerable local sectors such as the beef sector, and seek an outcome that properly balances the risks and opportunities for the agri-food sector within a wider agreement.”
Meanwhile Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ian Marshall said: “We recognise the risks [the trade talks] pose for the beef industry in particular. However this is a Europe-wide issue and we will focus our activities through COPA [Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations], rather than engaging with DARD [Department of Agriculture and Rural Development] at a local level, on grounds that this is the most effective way to ensure farmers' interests are protected at a European and hence local level.”
The TTIP negotiations between the EU and the US come as the UK is preparing for a June 23 referendum on its continued role within the European Union.
The Detail project, Detail Data, recently reported on EU funding to rural communities in Northern Ireland. Click here to read that investigation in full.