Protecting the funding that comes to agriculture is the key priority for new Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president William Irvine.

“Future support is front and centre. There is a big fight to be made,” he told the Irish Farmers Journal.

Speaking at the start of his two-year term in office, the Co Armagh dairy farmer said he will argue for funding to keep pace with inflation, although he accepts “that is going to be a challenge”.

However, he believes there is a growing acceptance within Westminster that farmers need to be protected amid so much global uncertainty related to climate change, on-going conflicts, etc.

“Slowly and surely it is dawning, the realisation that agriculture needs to be supported if they [government] want secure food supply. The 65m people in the UK still need to be fed,” he said.

But even if DAERA is able to secure similar levels of funding from a new UK government for direct payments to farmers, how that money is distributed is changing, with 17% to come off all payments in 2025 to fund beef schemes. As a result, those farmers without finishing cattle or suckler cows are losing out.

“If payments are going to reduce in some sectors, the shortfall has to come from other players in the supply chain. We, as primary producers, feel very vulnerable with weather, etc, without having to cushion supermarket incomes as well,” suggested Irvine.

He also has a warning for DAERA not to attach too many conditions to future payments, as continually expecting agriculture to do more for less will lead to lower food production.

Sheep payment

When asked about continued lobby efforts from the UFU to secure a payment for ewes, Irvine said the union is “still on that case”, pointing out that if a scheme can help drive efficient production on farms, it also comes with an environmental benefit.

But with DAERA constrained by World Trade Organisation rules, which put a cap of 17% on the amount of support that can be allocated to headage schemes, if money is to go to sheep, it means lower payments for beef.

“We are aware it is going to have to come out of that 17% pot,” acknowledged Irvine.

Suckler scheme

DAERA is yet to finalise details around the new suckler scheme due to open in 2025, however, the union has been consulted on a draft plan and has “pushed back with various concerns”, said Irvine. The main issues relate to eligibility requirements proposed by DAERA around age at first calving (under 34 months in year one, falling to under 29 months by year four) and calving interval for mature cows (under 415 days in year one, falling to under 385 days by year four).


While the UFU has been consulted throughout the development of future agricultural policy, there is a strong sense of frustration that the same has not happened when it comes to environmental issues, especially relating to ammonia emissions.

“The NI Environment Agency (NIEA) has taken a hard line on ammonia. They are even struggling to consider planning applications that involve betterment or replacement – that is totally unacceptable,” said Irvine.

The other key environmental issue at present, relates to water quality, with the UFU proposing that it employs water quality officers to visit farms to offer education and advice on good practice. The argument Irvine puts forward is that NIEA is seen as an enforcement body and is not well positioned to undertake this type of work.

“The feedback on our proposal has been positive from DAERA, but no decision has been taken,” he confirmed.

New president backing for Rural Support

Charitable donations made during William Irvine’s two-year term in office will go to help fund the mentoring work done by Rural Support.

“The helpline and the mentoring support done at the kitchen tables – it is a core element of the organisation. There is a lot of change and turmoil in the industry at the moment, not helped by bad weather in combination with a lorry-load of uncertainty. The service provided by Rural Support is vital,” said Irvine.

Irvine takes over

Having been elected as deputy president of the UFU back in 2020, William Irvine took over from outgoing president, Co Fermanagh farmer David Brown, at the UFU AGM on Wednesday.

He has previously served as chair of the UFU dairy committee and as a board member for Co Armagh.

William’s wife, Ruth, is also active in UFU circles, having chaired the UFU Rural Affairs Committee.