NI budget: DARD cuts may mean 300 redundancies
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) is set to cut £30m from its annual budget, largely funded through 300 redundancies.
DARD is facing cuts along with most other Stormont departments, apart from health, following a cut in the grant Northern Ireland gets from Westminster.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill has said this will mean tough choices.
In advance of a consultation paper to be published later this week, she has set out her spending priorities.
'Poverty and isolation'
They include funding for farmers in the most difficult areas, known in European Union terminology as Areas of Natural Constraint (ANCs).
Ms O'Neill said she was also committed to policies to tackle poverty and isolation in rural areas.
She said that as well as facing cuts, the industry needed to grow to deliver employment in agriculture and food processing.
On that basis, the minister said she would retain funding for the farm development side of the Going for Growth strategy, a joint project run by her department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).
Ms O'Neill also said that rural development funding for community-based Local Action Groups would be protected, once the 2014 to 2020 rural development plan was approved by the European Commission.
She underlined that the cuts would not affect plans to decentralise many DARD functions, including the move of its headquarters to Ballykelly, County Londonderry, beginning in 2017.
Staff will apply for redundancy to a central fund across all departments.
It is believed that the scale of decentralisation within DARD will see a significant interest in the redundancy plan, particularly amongst senior staff based in Belfast.
Asked about providing services with reduced staff numbers, Mrs O'Neill said ways would have to be found to deliver more from reduced resources.
If this includes greater efficiency and fewer individual inspections as part of EU monitoring of Common Agricultural Police (CAP) spending, this will be welcomed by farmers as one positive result of the budget cuts.
The minister confirmed that all three College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) colleges at Greenmount, Loughry and Enniskillen would remain open, but that they would face staff cuts.
Research projects will be reassessed to focus on those likely to deliver the greatest short-term gain for the industry.
The proposals will now go out for a six-week consultation.