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2007 – Devolution Delivers - Gildernew

28 December, 2007

Sinn Féin Six County Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle Gildernew MP MLA in a Christmas and New Year message has highlighted the benefits of the restoration of the Good Friday Agreement Institutions.

Ms Gildernew said:

"I will remember 2007 as the year in which devolution and the restored Good Friday Agreement Institutions were returned to the North, and I was tasked with the very great privilege of serving the farming, fishing and rural communities as their local Minister.

"The value of devolution was realised four months later when we faced the threat of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Local decision making by local people was key to preventing this difficulty becoming a crisis. As a local Minister I had the ability, with the support of stakeholders and my Executive Colleagues, to ensure that swift and decisive action was taken to prevent the disease coming here and help maintain our trade.

"The "Fortress Ireland" approach ensured that we protected our industry from this disease and its devastating consequences. The use of certification, identifying the product as being from the North of Ireland, was also a local initiative and again, local action ensured that businesses here were supported, as they continued to export their food products across the World despite the FMD outbreak in England.

"Thanks must go to the many who supported DARD as it handled FMD, this includes the stakeholder groups who ensured that their members were kept informed. I wish to thank in particular farmers who remained vigilant for the signs of FMD during this worrying time.

"As I write this I am, however, conscious of how as the threat of FMD recedes, there is a very real risk from Bluetongue. Good biosecurity at both farm and national level is our best defence against both these diseases and others. I would encourage all farmers, hauliers, processors and especially importers, to apply good biosecurity principles and be aware that one individual's bad practice has the potential to jeopardise many livelihoods.

"Many rural dwellers and farmers will presently be considering how they do business in the New Year or looking for new opportunities available to them. Farmers and processors may be looking at new markets, others may have in mind a new business idea or a diversification project. The £500 million Rural Development Programme which was approved in July offers support for such changes.

"The Rural Development Programme here was one of the first programmes to be approved by the EU in tandem with the South - and ahead of England, Scotland and Wales. In addition, the voluntary modulation rate I set was lower than my direct rule predecessor and placed an additional £15 million into rural development. During the approval process we tried to keep business as usual, continuing to pay existing Forestry and Agri-Environment commitments and some of the Less Favoured Areas payment. Once the programme was approved, I immediately announced the £11 million balance payment for Less Favoured Areas. In December I opened the Agricultural and Processing Marketing Grant (PMG) Scheme. This scheme offers £21.5 million, over the lifetime of the Rural Development Programme, to a wide range of small to intermediate sized businesses who are either involved, or wishing to become involved, in the processing and marketing of agricultural, horticultural and forestry products.

"I have asked local councils to come together to help deliver part of the Programme in partnership with the local community. I firmly believe that together they will ensure that this funding gets on the ground quickly to the people who need it, and that it will make a real difference to the lives of all rural dwellers.

"The New Year will bring more challenges for rural communities, many of which lie beyond DARD's responsibilities. Since I came into this job I have signalled my intention to champion rural issues within government. I am therefore delighted that the draft Programme for Government recognises our plans to define the role of rural champion, including improving the rural proofing process and to develop proposals for a Rural White Paper. These are large and challenging pieces of work, but if we get them right we can put in place the necessary frameworks to ensure issues affecting rural communities are built into the heart of all Government policy making.

"I have also set up the rural childcare group and very much look forward to receiving their report and tackling this issue which, as a mother of two myself, is very close to my heart.

"My mission is not just to create new rural businesses but to help make life easier for those already in business and this means cutting red tape. To be frank, it is impossible to untangle all the regulations overnight, and most of the regulations do not rest with me but with the EU. However, I have launched a Better Regulation and Simplification Review in conjunction with my Executive colleague Arlene Foster. We have tasked the Panel with reporting back, within 6 months, with a Simplification Plan to deliver a reduction in the burden of regulation on the agri-food sector of 25% over the next five years.

"There are also, as with all businesses, regulations that must be met and the Farm Nutrient Management Scheme offers farmers support in relation to managing waste water regulations. To date, my Department has undertaken pre-approval inspections for over 3,300 applications under the scheme. I am very pleased we have done so much since June when I was able to provide reassurance that funding would be available to local farmers to implement this scheme. In relation to grants and subsidy payments, I have improved the 2007 payment timetable, more farmers are now getting their money earlier than before and there are fewer inspection visits relating to this payment.

"Local Food Procurement is also an area I am focused on. I recently met with the Minister for Education and the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety. These are the two biggest food procuring departments and my aim, through raising this issue, is to find new ways to increase the ability of local companies to secure contracts. The work of the RAFAEL Project, in conjunction with the Sperrin Lakeland Health Trust and its partners in the North West, is a great example of a local procurement success story. This project aims to encourage and promote the availability of local authentic food, and to contribute to public sector engagement by producers and processors in sustainable procurement models. I am currently exploring the idea of expanding the RAFAEL Project and have pressed both the Minister for Health and the Minister for Education to consider how its work could be expanded to include other Health Trusts and Education Boards. This developing project should also offer new opportunities and markets to the local dairy sector. The Dairy sector has had a good year with strong prices but there some very real challenges ahead for this sector. .

"Farming is an industry which is in transition in response to the decoupling of subsidies from production. The publication of the Red Meat Task Force report was very much a watershed, as it spelt out in stark terms the challenge facing the industry to restore profitability in a very competitive market place. DARD is committed to working in partnership with the industry in moving forward.

"During the past eight months I have had the great pleasure of meeting quite literally hundreds of farmers and rural dwellers and hearing their views. I very much aim to be a local Minister who works in partnership, listens, discusses and then takes action.

"I have met with over 150 community groups, farms, rural businesses and projects. I have engaged with all sectors, as well as dairy and beef, I have met with horticulture, pork and poultry representatives. I have heard the concerns of the organic, mushroom and potato sectors, to mention just a few groups who have lobbied me. I have also travelled to Brussels, Cologne and Washington in order to lobby for, and support, our local businesses and farmers. I have met Commissioners Borg and Fischer Boel many times and have been a strong voice for local farmers and fishermen in Europe.

"I especially enjoyed the walkabouts at the Balmoral Show, and the two ploughing matches I attended. It was great to see the farming community at these shows, the massive effort put into showing quality livestock and keeping traditions alive, as well as seeing new machinery and new ways of working.

"Our community is very much a community of doers, and despite difficult times, there is clearly a lot of commitment and energy in farming.

"Fishing is also part of my portfolio and an industry which also faces many challenges. In December I visited the fishing ports and heard first hand the sector's hopes and difficulties. The European Fisheries Fund will see £25 million invested in the fisheries sector over the next 7 years. Half of this will come from Europe and half will come from DARD. I will want to make sure that this money encourages further investment from the private sector to enable the industry to modernise and develop a sustainable future. At the December Fisheries Council I fought strongly to achieve the priorities that I agreed with the fishing industry and I believe that the achievement of these objectives was due to the strong partnership I developed with the industry.

"Looking forward, I will continue to meet people and hear their opinions. It is not the just the office holders I wish to speak to - I also want to hear from the grassroots. I especially aim to listen to groups who feel marginalised or excluded - perhaps through their gender, sexual preference or a disability.

"Equality is, and will continue to be, at the heart of all my work and is my motivation behind the current equality exercise I am carrying out on the draft Programme for Government, Budget and the Investment Strategy.

"The New Year will bring with it many challenges for the farming and rural community, but it is through working together, that we will overcome obstacles and become stronger in everything we do. Athbhliain faoi mhaise duit. Happy New Year." ENDS

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