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Wellington Poots

Poots aims to save his party, but on environmental policy he’s agricultural

By Anton McCabe

Focusing on Edwin Poots as a Young Earth Creationist can divert attention from more worrying opinions that have greater practical application.

Poots is currently Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland’s Executive. He has been quite a force in that post. In his Register of Interests, he declares membership of the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU). He is close to that organisation, the North’s main farmers’ organisation, representing large scale farmers. He grew up on a farm outside Lisburn, Co Antrim, studied at Greenmount agricultural college and according to Stormont’s register of interests, Poots worked on the family farm 40 hours a month but receives no money. He owns agricultural land at Crossan, Lisnastrain and Growell and jointly-owns a small holding in Hillsborough, Co Down.

He was Minister when a Memorandum for Understanding was drawn up between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and UFU. It makes it more difficult to prosecute farmers for pollution offences. In any event the UFU is to promote derogation under the Nitrates Action Programme for suitable farmers. “NIEA will not retrospectively inspect records for new derogation applicants (initially for a period of one year)”, according to the Memorandum. “NIEA will give a minimum of 7 days notice for a routine cross-compliance inspection”. Additionally, “NIEA will also explore new ways of dealing with low severity incidents and their impact on cross compliance and the Basic Payment Scheme…”.

Poots has opposed an independent Environmental Protection Agency for the North. “What is wrong with having a system through which there is accountability to the Chamber for environmental regulation?” he said. “An
independent environmental protection agency would not provide that. I can come to the Chamber and be held to account for the actions of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). It has a lot of autonomy, but I can be held accountable for its actions in a way that I could not be for the actions of an independent environmental protection agency”.

In public statements he has modified this position, but is in no rush. He told Radio Ulster he considered an environmental strategy to be of greater importance than its independence. This is despite the New Decade New Approach document, on which power-sharing was relaunched, making the commitment “the Executive will establish an Independent Environmental Protection Agency to oversee this work and ensure targets are met”.

Northern Ireland accounted for 4.3% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 generating the equivalent of 10.3 tonnes of CO2 per person compared with a UK figure of 6.8 tonnes of CO2 per person, and the Republic’s figure of around 13 tonnes.

As Minister, he has also denied there is a climate emergency. “That is something my department don’t accept, so, leaving myself to one side, the officials in my department don’t believe that is appropriate language”, he said. “The advice I have received from my officials is that language is not helpful and there is a course of work we need to engage in and actions we need to take and we as a department will not be found wanting”.

He has thus opposed the Climate Change Bill, proposed by Green Party leader Clare Bailey. “The Private Members’ Bill has passed its second reading without any regard to either the long term sustainability of our hard-working agri-food sector, (my emphasis) nor the long term achievability of the environmental targets and commitments contained within the Bill”. he said. He is opposed to the Bill’s target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

“My role is to try and protect and enhance our environment in a sustainable way and ensure that we have a thriving agricultural sector in which they are custodians of the environment”, he has stated.

However, Poots’ tenure as party leader may be short. While able to work with Sinn Féin, he lacks the ability to accommodate the wings of the DUP. As leader of a deeply divided party, he set about rewarding his friends and punishing his internal enemies. He also seems unable to control his members, as evidenced by Ian ‘Baby Doc’ Paisley chanting “Robin Swann is a danger” to a cue from now nutty Van Morrison.

The party contains three broad constituencies. There are religious fundamentalists, who have now seized control. They include most elected representatives. They are pulling in an opposite direction to the secular Unionists, who represent most of the voters. Then there are libertarians, a term implausibly adopted by some of the elected representatives. They currently line up with the fundamentalists from whom they’re strangely not that distinguishable.

Assembly elections are due in May next year. Given the bitter public division, at this stage it seems unlikely the DUP will remain the largest party.

That raises the possibility of a Sinn Féin First Minister. If Poots is still DUP leader then, it’s hard to see him surviving such a strategic humiliation.