THE National Sheep Association (NSA) is the latest farming and countryside group to give a cautious welcome the news of what it called an 'updated' Brexit deal.

The NSA said that, if passed, the agreement could provide much needed and long-awaited assurances to the UK sheep industry. However, concerns remain with regard to sheep farmers in Northern Ireland.

NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “NSA has said all along that if we are to leave the EU then the priority must be to maintain continuous and friction-free access to the market for UK sheepmeat into Europe – where we know it is valued and in demand. There should be no doubt that this includes free and frictionless trade within the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. This deal is cautiously welcomed, however, there is still uncertainty about exactly what this might mean for sheep farmers on the Island of Ireland.”

NSA Northern Ireland regional development officer Edward Adamson adds: “This deal seems, in some ways, to be a worse deal for sheep farmers in Northern Ireland than the deal put on the table just under a year ago. The red line in the Irish Sea is not going down well and without DUP support the deal is unlikely to get through Parliament. However, while the deal is not ideal it would at least be better for sheep farmers in Northern Ireland than crashing out with no-deal.”

The NSA said if accepted by Parliament tomorrow (Saturday), the Bill would enable an implementation period that would allow UK sheepmeat exporters to continue trading in the immediate future.

Mr Stocker said: “Passing a deal now would mean we avoid a no-deal and maintain the status quo during this implementation period. This would give the UK until the end of December 2020 in which to, hopefully, negotiate a permanent free trade deal with our European partners and further afield. On this basis, I would encourage MPs to back the deal and put an end to years of uncertainty.”

Earlier NFU president Minette Batters said: “The NFU is pleased to see that the UK and EU negotiators have come to an agreement on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which might pave the way for an orderly Brexit and the avoidance of leaving without a deal.

“However, we must remember that if this deal is agreed by UK and EU Parliaments in the coming days, it only determines how the UK withdraws from the EU and does not determine the long-term future of the UK’s and EU’s relationship.

“It is vital that government has a long-term aspiration to ensure that British farming standards are not undercut by an ambition to open up British markets to food which would be illegal to produce here and that there is free and frictionless trade with the EU in the long term.

“We have had precious little reassurances on these issues so far and we look to government to be clear about its ambitions for British farming, which provides affordable, safe, home-grown food produced to some of the highest standards in the world.”

Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “News of a deal will be warmly welcomed by farmers and rural businesses, many of whom were fearing the consequences of a No Deal scenario. The proposed deal finally provides us with some certainty that could in turn help unlock much needed investment to get the rural economy moving again.

“Opposition MPs, many of whom have argued against a hard Brexit, should think very carefully before voting this deal down. One gets the sense that it’s this deal or No Deal”.