As the Prime Minister outlined the UK government’s proposals for leaving the European Union in Manchester yesterday (2 October), the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rt Rev Dr William Henry, was on the Ards Peninsular meeting with local farming and fishing representatives, where much of the conversation centred on Brexit.
Speaking at Cloughey Presbyterian Church on the third full day of his weeklong Ards Presbytery Tour, where yesterday’s meetings were held, Dr Henry said, “This Presbytery Tour has been a ‘listening tour’ in many ways, as I have met and had the opportunity to listen to many different folk, some from my own denomination, but all involved in the life their local community.
“The variety of issues we have covered ranged from education and youth work to healthcare, and mental healthcare in particular, and the criminal justice system. Today on the Ards Peninsula, the focus has been on farming and fishing, particularly in relation to Brexit.”
The Moderator heard that there are approximately 300 vessels in Northern Ireland landing around 17,000 tonnes of fish per year. He was also informed of the change that had taken place within the local industry, with the County Down ports of Portavogie and Ardglass employing half of what they did 40 years ago, the lack of uptake from the younger generation to go to sea and a reliance on contracted transient seaman from the Far East.
There had also been a drastic reduction in the local fishing fleet over time. With Brexit, however, Dr Henry was told of the potential for the industry, once outside the European Union, to fish within the UK’s 200 mile coastal waters.
Meeting with local dairy, beef, sheep and arable farmers on the peninsula, Dr Henry also heard that Northern Ireland’s unique position, as a country with the UK’s only land border with the European Union, had to be factored into the current negotiations, given that the local agri-food industry is Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, employing 80,000 people, and worth approximately £5 billion per year.
Farmers also told him that the industry could potentially be ‘decimated’ by the UK’s departure from the European Union, especially if there was a ‘no deal’ with a potential loss of 40,000 jobs. Talking of two particular sectors, the Moderator heard that each year 500,000 Northern Irish lambs go to be slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland and 60% of milk each day from the north goes to the south to be processed.
Thanking those who took the time to come and meet him, Dr Henry said that it had been a very useful, and salutary exercise, and was a precursor to meetings that have been planned later on in the month to listen to people in the church’s border presbyteries about Brexit.
“It is clear that the island of Ireland is in a unique position in the European Union when it comes to Brexit, with Northern Ireland holding a unique position in the UK, when it comes to leaving the EU. While we didn’t have time to discuss the government’s proposals, today highlighted for me the different issues raised by Brexit, some of which cannot be answered with a simple soundbite. We continue to pray for all those affected by this uncertainty, and for our leaders, as they seek to find a solution. Important questions around mental health and how we as a church pastor in rural communities have also been raised.”