The preservation of our food exports to the UK on a tariff-free basis must be our guiding principle throughout the Brexit negotiations, ICMSA president John Comer told the association's agm in Limerick.
Brexit negotiations are expected to begin early next year and Mr Comer said that it was impossible to over-state the dangers presented to our flagship food sector’s exports to the UK by a new system of tariffs, customs-clearance and the persistence of Sterling devaluation relative to the euro.
“The effects of these impediments to our vital food producing sector could be of the most serious order,” he said, pointing out that Ireland’s food trade with the UK was centuries old and currently valued at just short of €5bn per annum.
Mr Comer told the several hundred members that gathered in Limerick that Ireland could not “stand idly by” while decisions that went to the very core of the State’s economic prospects were debated without reference to the critical importance and ancient commercial ties between Irish food production and their UK markets.
“Ireland must be cognisant of others’ positions, but if there was ever a time and occasion when we must leave no doubt about our intention to defend our national interests, then it was surely this,” said Mr Comer.
The ICMSA president said that the huge swathes of rural Ireland more or less completely dependent on farming and food production needed to know that the Government would be setting out the preservation of Ireland’s current access to the UK food market as a national strategic imperative on which Ireland could not - and would not – concede.
The meeting was also attended by Minister for Agrictulture Michael Creed and former Taoiseach and EU ambassador to the US, John Bruton.
Mr Bruton compared the threat offered by Brexit to that experienced during the “Economic War” with Britian in the mid-1930s.
He laid out clearly where the negotiating quicksand was and made it abundantly clear that we must be thinking in terms of, perhaps, 20 years before a final position can be achieved
Nor was he any less vague about where blame should be apportioned for the chaos that must ensue. He described as “undemocratic” several conclusions that the UK government had drawn from the referendum decision without, in his opinion, sufficient evidence that that was what was intended.
Meanwhile, Minister Creed spoke about the general situation and fielded questions about the prospects for some stability and recovery in milk price as well as numerous attacks on the hugely disliked QPS Beef Grid – a pricing system operated by the meat factories that is the subject of much mistrust and resentment on the part of the majority of farmers.
ICMSA has recently published figures that show a disappearance of some €80m from farmer beef price since the grid was introduced and speaker after speaker called for the Minister to follow through on a commitment to review the grid given by his predecessor at the Beef Forum over two years ago.