The European Commission is to back six-year rural development plans for Ireland North and South worth more than €6.52 billion. Some £500 million (€746 million) of this will be allocated by the Stormont Executive.
The EU rural development committee yesterday sanctioned the Republic's rural development package, which will focus on land management, the environment and increasing the competitiveness of the agri-food sector.
Some €2.33 billion of the funding will be provided by the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development and the balance will come from the national exchequer.
"This programme represents unprecedented investment in Irish agriculture and will enhance our rural environment and help to secure farmers' income into the future," said Minister for Agriculture Mary Coughlan.
"This €5.78 billion package is clear evidence of this Government's commitment to farmers and to rural life in Ireland."
The main aims of the rural development package are to support the development of rural areas, sustainable development and the provision of public goods.
The allocation will also back programmes aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change, ensuring a competitive agri-food sector, addressing structural problems in the industry and the need for on-farm capital investment; and boosting the quality of life in rural areas.
In Belfast, the announcement was welcomed by Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew.
"I am very pleased that our programme is not just the first programme across these islands to be approved, but is in the top 10 of all programmes to be approved so far by the European Commission." The Northern rural development plan comprises some 14 individual measures drawn up to back hard-hit local rural economies.
Ms Gildernew said she had pressed Commissioner Fischer Boel and Commission president José Manuel Barroso on the need for early approval of the proposed rural development plan when they visited Northern Ireland in May.
"The announcement represents recognition by Europe of how important rural communities are to the fabric of this region. It is also confirmation of how well President Barroso and Commissioner Fischer Boel listened to our needs during their visits earlier this year when the president announced his initiative to set-up a European Commission Taskforce. This taskforce is helping us get the most of our membership of the EU and is facilitating the early approval of the new round of EU Programmes 2007-13."
Dan Keenan & Jamie Smyth
© 2007 The Irish Times