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Michele Shirlow – Farm Week Column

Food NI has always enjoyed a close relationship with our politicians from all parties.
They have supported all our initiatives enthusiastically on behalf of the local food and
drink industry especially during the immensely successful Year of Food and Drink.
And our launch last year of our Taste the Greatness strategic action plan was
welcomed by the main parties. We had hoped to build momentum last year.
Our politicians have continued to lend support to our most important industry in
developing business here, in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Our work with
Mid and East Antrim Council in setting up an innovative Food and Drink Network,
linked closely to tourism, has also benefited from the backing of councillors from all
parties.

The council in Mid and East Antrim has a clear vision and is committed to the growth
of food and drink and to marketing the industry as a magnet for visitors from abroad,
especially the coastal route that I believe has the potential to generate the sort of
business and innovation that the Wild Atlantic Way and Ancient East are contributing
in the Republic of Ireland.

We’ve enjoyed – and appreciated greatly – similar support from other councils that
we’ve worked with over the past few years on a range of initiatives including food
and drink festivals, most of which, I am delighted to report, have prospered since                                                             the Year of Food and Drink in 2016.

I was disappointed to see the current talks to reinstate devolution here ending last
week because strengthening our industry and the wider Northern Ireland economy
really does need a ‘united front’. This is why I hope the political discussions can be
resuscitated.

Regrettably, hundreds of good jobs have been lost in other manufacturing sectors,
especially in the Ballymena area, over the past year, and we really are facing into the
unknown, Brexit, with no realistic plan with recommendations as to how we can
safeguard the economy and create a platform for much faster growth.

The current uncertainty is corrosive. I’m concerned, in particular, about suggestions
from several medium-sized food processors that they will consider surmounting any
future border checks and tariffs by setting up in the Republic.

We cannot afford any serious damage to the fabric of the economy and overall
economic wellbeing, especially at this time of crisis in our health and education
services. A vibrant economy is crucially important if we are to contribute to the
funding pot for essential public services.

The economy really ought to be the priority here and there needs to be a much
sharper focus on measures geared to enable our companies, both large and small,
to grasp the global opportunities that Brexit may, in time, produce.

It’s our experience that the many of our member companies, especially the smaller
enterprises, are keen to increase business in Great Britain and the Republic of
Ireland, two markets which could be a springboard, a first stage, to other global
markets.

And within our limited resources, we are undertaking to support them in this
endeavour, a commitment which has involved participation in major food shows in
Britain and further showcases are planned this year, including a major Food NI
presentation at the iconic Borough Market, one of the biggest and most influential in
London.

Our food and drink industry, still our biggest manufacturer and a developing exporter,
has the potential to make an even greater contribution to the economy. Let’s hope
that a stable political platform can be created which supports that growth.