Blair: We need detailed planning on Brexit protocols

Provision needs to be made for implementing protocol checks regarding  post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland, Alliance MLA John Blair has said.

Speaking after Finance Minister Conor Murphy confirmed he would be holding the Treasury to previous Brexit commitments, John said it was clear more detail was needed to pin down exactly how and when this would be supplied.

He said: “As recently mentioned in the UK Government response to the Northern Ireland Protocol, there will be expanded infrastructure required at several ports here, in order to provide the checks needed on animal and food products coming from Great Britain.

“No matter your views on Brexit itself or the journey that got us here, everyone needs to realise preparations for implementation of the Protocol are essential. It is therefore reasonable to expect provision is already being made and checks are taking place within the Department of Finance to ensure there is capacity for this considerable upscaling from the current arrangements.

“Brexit will be damaging for Northern Ireland and the wider UK. However, we all have to deal with it and I hope the Minister will be able to provide more detailed planning in the weeks ahead.”

Vital we do all we can to prevent further fish kills, says Blair

It is vital we do all we can to prevent further repeats of fish kills after several recent incidents, Alliance Environment spokesperson John Blair MLA has said.

The South Antrim MLA was speaking after securing the agreement of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Committee to examine the issue. The Committee will look at a number of factors, including occurrences, levels of penalties and the overall effect on the entire ecosystem.

Earlier this month, up to 1,000 fish were believed to have been killed in the Glenavy River due to pollution, which was described by Alliance Councillor David Honeyford as an “environmental disaster”. Another fish kill, described as ‘significant,’ was discovered in the Grange River in Desertmartin yesterday.

“I am pleased the DAERA Committee has agreed to my request to schedule a detailed look at occurrences of major fish kills in Northern Ireland,” said Mr Blair.

“I will work to ensure the Committee examines the frequency of these, the extent of damage to our vital natural habitat and ecosystems, as well as the legal outcomes and if these are proportionate to the damage caused. While such outcomes are of course a matter for the courts, it is understandable the Committee should consider whether penalties are perceived as a deterrent.

“These latest incidents are particularly worrying – I will continue to encourage the statutory agencies to work with communities, anglers and conservationists to help protect our rivers, and the valuable natural life and resource they provide.”

Major questions remain after Minister’s angling announcement, says Blair

Major questions remain after the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs announced angling would be permitted from Monday, Alliance spokesperson John Blair MLA has said.

Mr Blair said while the pastime allowed for social distancing guidelines to be followed, the announcement by Edwin Poots left a number of matters without answers before next week.

“Angling is a practice which easily facilitates social distancing and as such, I have been attempting to receive confirmation from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs regarding its potential return as part of the Executive’s path to recovery. However, this announcement late last night to permit angling to return from Monday has come somewhat out of the blue and left major questions to be answered,” said South Antrim MLA Mr Blair.

“Health and safety will be a major issue for everyone going forward from this pandemic. However, fisheries staff at the Department have now been given no lead-in time to prepare for this return. Pathways, slipways, stiles and fishing stands at angling locations will need to be inspected and cleaned, giving just a weekend for this to be done across Northern Ireland before they are open to the public again. Online sales of legally required angling licences has also been suspended, and therefore clarification on this is urgently required.

“I would hope the Minister has also consulted with other organisations, including NI Water and Waterways Ireland, prior to his announcement, as co-ordination is vital to securing social distancing is followed at angling locations, many of which are remote locations on relatively minor roads.

“Alliance will be writing to the Minister to enquire on this matter and seeking answers urgently. While the resumption of activities such as angling is an important step on the return to normality, it cannot come at the expense of public health and safety.”

Full and regular updates needed on police duty issue, says Blair

Alliance Policing Board member John Blair MLA has said full and regular updates from the Chief Constable are needed, after dozens of officers did not report for duty in Derry-Londonderry and Strabane, over a fortnight last month.

An internal policy inquiry is underway, after the officers were informed they could be on standby from home by inspectors, without the knowledge of senior commanders, according to media reports. The practice was believed to have been ended as soon as it was discovered.

“I welcome the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding this practice,” said South Antrim MLA Mr Blair.

“The Chief Constable has informed the Policing Board and outlined it will now be investigated. This allegedly happened at a time when the public were being told the PSNI was policing the pandemic lockdown and fewer officers on the streets could have meant enforcement was harder to carry out.

“Without wishing to prejudice any inquiry, if true it is clear there would be serious public safety implications and a potential resulting loss of public confidence. I will be expecting full and regular updates from the Chief Constable on this matter, and await the outcome of the investigation.”

Developing agritourism industry will help rural economy recover from pandemic, says Blair

Helping a local agritourism industry develop and grow will help the rural economy recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Alliance Agriculture spokesperson John Blair MLA has said.

Agritourism involves structured farm stays, experiences and visits and is an addition to selling produce, holding educational visits and other forms of entertainment. South Antrim MLA Mr Blair said Northern Ireland could follow the example of other regions in promoting it as an attractive option for holidaymakers post-coronavirus, when more people are likely to participate in ‘staycations’.

“Like many industries, the agricultural sector has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and it will be a long road for it to recover,” he said.

“Therefore many farmers will need to diversify their income as we move forward, while becoming less reliant on outside factors beyond their control such as market prices and Government subsidies. In other parts of the UK and Ireland, activities such as farm visits are a well-established part of the agricultural economy. It’s time we did the same here.

“Agritourism is a growth industry across the world and would be a major benefit to farmers in Northern Ireland trying to recover from the damage the coronavirus crisis has caused. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs needs to explore how we can expand and promote it here as a viable part of any economic recovery plan. I have raised this matter with the Depatment and look forward to hearing the response.”