February 18, 2002

Report Calls for All-Ireland Expert Group on Foot-and-Mouth and Other Animal Diseases

Press Release

The first independent report on the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak has called for the convening of an all-Ireland Expert Advisory Group, modelled on the expert group which successfully advised Irish Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh last year, to become active in the event of a future animal health emergency affecting the island as a whole. (page 76)

Issued almost exactly one year after the original outbreak of FMD in England, the report – The Foot-and-Mouth Disease Crisis and the Irish Border – is published today by the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. Its author is the Centre’s research manager, Dr Patricia Clarke. The report also includes comments from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Northern Ireland) and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Republic of Ireland).

The report points out that in the past 10 years in Ireland there have been outbreaks of Aujesky’s disease and blue ear disease in pigs; BSE in cattle; FMD in sheep and cattle, and salmonella in poultry (page 65). It concludes that “the most successful way to avoid future emergencies is to utilise the natural water barrier around the island by moving towards an all-Ireland animal health system.” (page 13)

It also points out that the unique North/South procedures brought in by the Good Friday Agreement “under which a nationalist minister like Mrs Rodgers is ‘shadowed’ by a unionist minister at all North/South meetings, appear to have legitimised the option of working on a cross-border basis towards an all-Ireland animal health policy.” (14)

The report also recommends the setting up of a “all-island multi-sectoral group”, made up of farmers organisations, North and South, and other agricultural interests, to work with officials of the North/South Ministerial Council on a future all-Ireland animal health strategy. (page 75)

It emphasises that “the inability to identify animal movements was shown to be a huge disability in the fight against FMD on the island. Plans should be made to harmonise ID systems for all animals on a North/South basis and methods for promoting mutual access to records should be developed.” (page 77)

The report says the FMD crisis presents an opportunity to put the control of animal movements and other elements of animal health on “a sounder, all-Ireland footing.” Warning that with the crisis now over, the “intensity of discussions on all-Ireland animal health problems appears to have lessened”, it says there is a need to develop a North/South forum where the Departments of Agriculture, the farming organisations, veterinary bodies and other representative groups can properly examine the feasibility of such all-island solutions. (page 78)

The report finds that the overall co-operation between the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Belfast and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in Dublin during last year’s crisis was very effective.“The most publicised example was that of tracing the movement of British sheep which had been brought onto the island and illegally diverted either to farms in Northern Ireland or to destinations in the Republic. On this issue the two authorities co-operated at the highest level, even to the extent that a joint team of officials travelled to England to interview one livestock dealer.” (page 14)

The report highlights the importance of the decision by the Northern Ireland Executive to ban imports of animals and animal products two days after the first FMD outbreak in England. This decision, which would have been almost inconceivable under direct rule, “allowed the island’s agricultural authorities to take control of tackling the crisis” and was “the first high profile example of Northern Ireland’s new ability to make its own decisions.” (page 60)

It also emphasises the role of cross-border co-operation between the Ulster Farmers Union and the Irish Farmers Association in ensuring that a disputed cull of animals went ahead in South Armagh. The concerns of South Armagh farmers about compensation and disposing of carcasses were eased by the involvement in the negotiations of a senior IFA representative. (page 41)

The report is critical of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) for the failure of controls at Northern Ireland ports, which it says contributed to bringing the disease onto the island of Ireland. “The ease of obtaining a ‘direct for slaughter’ certificate, together with lax controls at the ports and the lack of an audit trail, made such importation ‘like taking candy from a baby,” in the words of one Northern farmer. (page 21)

DARD responds: “DARD’s position is very clear. Illegal activities were the sole cause of our foot-and-mouth disease outbreak and are not excusable. While the Department does what it can to guard against such activities, it does not have infinite resources and has to decide on its priorities. There was no EU requirement to check ANY consignment of sheep coming from GB to Northern Ireland, being within a single Member State, and neither was there any national legal requirement that we do so.” (page 21)