By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — As the Republic is set to be declared disease-free on Thursday, Northern Ireland has been plunged back into crisis with two new confirmed outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.
Northern Agriculture Minister Brid Rodgers has described the situation as a "nightmare" and ordered a pre-emptive cull of thousands of livestock surrounding the farms at Ardboe, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, and the tourist area of Cushendall, Co. Antrim.
Two other hot suspects are being investigated in the Cookstown area and one in Armagh and the virus has crossed the species barrier from sheep to cattle for the first time on the island.
A new alert has been imposed following the dashing of hopes that the virulent virus was eliminated in the Six Counties. It will also lead to a major reassessment of planned relaxations of restrictions in the South.
The only other FMD case north of the border had been confirmed in sheep at Meigh in South Armagh on March 1.
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The authorities have no explanation for what is causing the new outbreaks so long after the first case.
In the absence of any reason for the spread, it is almost impossible for vets to plan a campaign to control the virus. There are fears it would spiral out of control in the North in the same way it has spread throughout Britain.
Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh, who had just announced further relaxations in the controls and a rescheduling of the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day celebrations for May 18, described the new North outbreak as "harrowing."
Walsh said experts are baffled by the new outbreaks as the North had been six weeks without a reported case and all the textbooks said the incubation period of the virus was 28 days.
He ordered an import ban on all animal-based products from the North and also redoubled efforts on the border to prevent the spread of the disease to the South.
Before the new cases, an expert advisory group on the disease told the government it will be safe to hold the St Patrick’s Day festivities under strictly controlled circumstances for three days beginning May 18.
The crisis had led to one of the quietest national holidays ever when parades were canceled all over the country on March 17.
Walsh said people would be discouraged from coming to Ireland if they were traveling from restricted areas and controlled zones abroad, particularly in Britain.
The Republic has had only one case of the disease, on the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.
A pre-emptive cull has led to the slaughter of 49,000 sheep and 1,140 cattle, as well as pigs, goats and deer in the Cooley area. In all, 54,000 animals were killed.
Walsh had also said greyhound racing will be allowed resume on a limited basis on April 19and show-jumping could re-start on April 28.
The St. Patrick’s Festival chief executive, Maria Moynihan, she was "delighted" with the news.
The rescheduled events could spearhead the multi-million-pound international Bord Failte campaign designed to reassure tourists.
"We will be the living proof that Ireland is open for business," she said.
The program of events will be announced on April 20.