By John Kelly
Ireland is gradually trying to come to grips with the worst crisis to face the farming industry, and the economy in general, since 1941.
It was that long ago. Irish farmers shipped boatloads of livestock and other produce daily to a hungry United Kingdom then fighting against the Nazis. Some farmers who lived through the time will tell you that they never had it so good, especially in the wake of the depression-ridden ’30s.
Then, quite suddenly, in the midst of the worst war ever to hit Europe, came foot-and-mouth disease. The farming community faced bankruptcy as a result. The UK suffered even greater food losses.
An extremely virulent virus causes the disease, which affects cloven-foot animals in particular. It is easily transported on boots, shoes, clothes, vehicle wheels and, worst of all, by the wind.
Stopping its spread is difficult. Within weeks in 1941, it had spread throughout Ireland. All of Britain caught it too.
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Thousands of animals had to be slaughtered and burned throughout the island. Travel restrictions, already severe because of the war, became even tighter. Many farmers just gave up and left the land forever.
The question now facing Ireland is whether we already have foot-and-mouth on our land. And if we have, what will it mean not only for the future of farming but for the Celtic Tiger as a whole? In short, are we facing the end of the good times?
The answer to the first question is that it is likely the Republic has it because it has already been discovered in a farm in South Armagh, just three miles north of the Irish border.
As yet there have been no confirmed cases within the Republic. But several farms have been isolated, one of them in County Monaghan, and some meat plants have been shut down as a precaution.
The immediate effect on Irish social life, particularly in a sporting context, has been devastating.
Irish rugby fans, hoping that after victories over France and Italy, their team was on a roll, have been bitterly disappointed by the cancellation of the international tie against Wales. The scheduled Ireland versus England game is also in serious doubt.
As of now, there are 35 verified outbreaks of the disease in Scotland, England and Wales.
Travel may have to be restricted as a result.
The great spring meeting at Cheltenham, one of the biggest dates on the European racing calendar, has been cancelled. Bloodstock breeders, trainers, jockeys, bookmakers, and, of course, all of the available hotels in the vicinity of Cheltenham will suffer the loss of a business that is estimated to be worth no less than £10 million to locals.
Owners will also be hard hit. Potential prize money at the weeklong Cheltenham festival is also worth millions to them.
Sporting fixtures within the island of Ireland have also been voluntarily postponed to prevent travel.
While the Irish government has not imposed any widespread restrictions, it has approached many organizations — even religious leaders, in an effort to convince them to curtail services — especially in rural areas where travelling farmers can easily carry the disease on the land.
If the situation worsens, the government will impose stringent travel restrictions, just as in 1967.
In that year, the UK was also hit by the disease. The Irish government of the time immediately imposed tight travel restrictions. Disinfectant trays were placed at all entry and exit ports. Travelers had to clean their footwear before they were allowed access. Eventually the risk was deemed to be so great that all travel between Ireland and the UK was prohibited for some weeks at Christmas.
The government of the day won the battle. The dreaded disease was kept at bay. There were no breakouts on the island, but in the UK thousands of animals had to be destroyed and burned.
Now that the disease has already been identified in the South Armagh farm, the portents are not so good. It now appears that some of the lambs, originally imported into South Armagh from an affected farm in Stirling, in northern England, were brought to County Roscommon for slaughter in the major Kepak meat plant.
Investigators have also established that the meat was then exported to France.
Already, the French government has imposed a ban on the import of all livestock and meat from Ireland. As of now, French officials are claiming that the ban will be short-term in nature.
It shows the dangerous direction that events may take in the days and weeks immediately ahead.
The Irish meat industry is worth billions annually. An estimated 40,000 workers are dependent on it, without factoring in the many farmers who face potential ruin in the event of an all-out ban on their produce.
No less than 90 percent of all agricultural produce in Ireland is destined for the export market. Economically, it is worth much more in added value terms than Irish industry because production is not as dependent on imports.
Within the European Union Ireland is still regarded as being disease free, with the exception of BSE. In that regard, the majority of our international customers believe that we have it under control.
One serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease within the Republic can put all of that at risk. The British government is far more sanguine about the consequences of the epidemic now raging because, disastrous and painful though it may be, farming only accounts for a fraction of its GNP.
The European Union must share some of the blame because of its "open borders" policy, designed to ensure that food prices remain cheap. For months, European governments were aware that a virulent form of foot-and-mouth disease was raging in South Africa. It is likely that imports, recirculated through South Africa, may have led to the UK outbreak.
The only hope now is that some really serious lessons may be learned and applied. For Ireland and for other countries, cheap food comes at a high price.