The Brussels office will provide support for the Executive as a whole, but providing support and other services to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development as she helps the Northern Ireland agriculture industry through a difficult time will be a high priority in the coming months. The head of the office has now taken up post in Brussels.
Staff in the Brussels office will work for all Departments in accordance with priorities that will be agreed by the Departments. The special significance of EU agricultural policy means that agriculture will have a high priority in the Brussels office. It is a matter for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to set out policy in that area and to determine the nature of its negotiations.
The staff of the Brussels office, working closely with officials from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, will develop contacts with agriculture experts in UKRep and in the Commission and pursue relevant lines of enquiry. Should the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development decide that it needs a dedicated agriculture expert in the Brussels office, we would discuss how that need would be met.
The project has overrun because of internal regulations there and the need to refurbish the office. I understand that the office will be finally and fully open by the end of April. The notional cost was £450,000, which will, of course, be increased by the cost of fitting out the office in such a way that it can offer a proper service to the Executive and to Members of the Assembly who might require assistance while in Brussels, and promote Northern Ireland interests in the European Union.
The Deputy First Minister referred to liaison between the Northern Ireland Executive office in Brussels and agriculture experts in UKRep. How will the Northern Ireland view be put directly to the Commission, without being mediated through UKRep, when Great Britain’s interests are not the same as ours?
Our message will be conveyed directly by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Great Britain. We need to know about what is coming on-stream and about how we might bring benefits to Northern Ireland agriculture. That will be the benefit of having both the office and the expertise of UKRep.