It’s not uncommon to see reports of people queueing up all night for the latest iPhone, the next Star Wars movie or tickets to watch tennis at Wimbledon. But as I write, farmers in Northern Ireland are queueing outside for farm subsidies. The government in Northern Ireland has decided to hand out farm subsidies ‘on a first come first served’ basis. The decision was taken because this particular funding package is worth just £6 million and is capped at £5,000 per application so only 1,200 farmers stand to benefit. Farmers are to be sleeping out in the cold to ensure they get a good place in the line.
It all reminds me of something Alistair Campbell, former press secretary to Tony Blair, said to me years ago as we were waiting for a meeting on the communications strategy for the UK’s Rural White Paper to begin. He turned to me and asked,
“So have I got this right, from the perspective of the farmers, the best rural policy would be for me to get a big dumper truck and fill it with money, drive up the M6 to just past Birmingham, stop and tip it all out into the nearest field and then drive back to London?”
I suspect he was only half joking.
Now that the Northern Ireland government is taking almost as direct an approach for handing out CAP grants to farmers for modernising their holdings, the Commission has stepped in. Michael Mann, spokesman for the EU Agriculture Commissioner, told the BBC Radio 4 World At One that this method is not legal as it doesn’t comply with the rules for offering EU money on an equal basis to all applicants. Michelle Gildernew, Northern Ireland farms minister, has brushed off the criticism. In a radio interview she disparagingly refering to Mann as “this individual”. Who will prevail?
Meanwhile the farmers in Northern Ireland are preparing for a long, cold night…