Dáil Éireann - Volume 446 - 02 November, 1994

Adjournment Debate. - Live Cattle Exports.

[1693] Mr. J. Higgins: I thank the Chair for choosing this matter and seek the indulgence of the House to share my time with my colleague, Deputy Ring.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed.

Mr. J. Higgins: The live cattle trade has been paralysed for the past four weeks because of the embargo placed by the shipping companies. One of the main sources of income for hauliers and farmers and a considerable revenue earner for this country has been brought to a halt. In such circumstances one would assume that an imaginative initiative designed to relieve the logjam of live animals and to maintain healthy competition between the factory and live trade would be encouraged and welcomed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Yet, the northern businessman who proposed the transport of live cattle from Knock Airport was not facilitated but seems to have been thwarted and frustrated in every way by officialdom.

Mr. Sam Smyth, a northern businessman with a sound and long reputation in the export of live animals, took the specially adpated Balkan Airlines Atenoff 12 plane to Knock on Thursday, 20 October. The aircraft was inspected by the Department's veterinary section and 210 cattle were airlifted to Rennes in France on Friday 21 October. The flight went well and the animals arrived in peak condition. The Department's veterinary officer was on board during the flight to inspect the operation at first hand. Mr. Smyth brought the plane back to Knock on Monday, 24 October to collect a second consignment of animals but the Department failed to give him the go ahead. He rang the Department on several occasions and according to him officials refused to take his calls. The plane sat on the tarmacadam for three days and finally on Wednesday at 3 p.m. the plane and the livestock [1694] were taken to Aldergrove Airport in Belfast and within three hours sanction for the flight on foot of minor changes was given by the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland. The animals were flown out on Thursday morning and further flights took place on Friday and Saturday mornings.

What has happened in this case is an utter disgrace. If the veterinary officer who travelled on the first flight was satisfied, why was immediate sanction not given for further flights? If he was not satisfied, why were modifications and improvements not recommended? Why did departmental officials not take Mr. Smyth's calls and why was he kept waiting for three days, placing him in a loss making position? Why was it possible for the authorities in Northern Ireland, who I am sure are just as rigorous as the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, to give almost immediate sanction? Why do the UK authorities sanction four flights from Humberside each week in Balkan Airlines Atenoff 12 planes? Why has an operation that has huge commercial potential for our agricultural sector, with quick, efficient and comfortable air transport arrangements and considerable economic potential for Knock Airport, been sabotaged by departmental ineptitude and bureaucratic madness?

The publicity given to this sad episode and the treatment meted out by the Department to Mr. Smyth has done considerable damage. One would almost think there is a hidden agenda. I have asked legitimate questions in order to ensure there is no repeat of this and that everything possible will be done to facilitate such enterprise and initiative as displayed by Mr. Smyth.

Mr. Ring: I thank my colleague, Deputy Jim Higgins, for sharing time with me. I was very disappointed to learn about the experience of this northern businessman, Mr. Sam Smyth, whom I thank publicly for making every effort to transport weanlings from the west. Concerned farmers had contacted [1695] me but when I raised this with the Minister he told me two weeks ago in the House that the withdrawal of the main carrier from the carriage of livestock had not affected the sale of weanlings at the marts. That is incorrect. Farmers were telling me they could not sell their weanlings. On that occasion I pleaded with the Minister to hire ships and if the Government had to buy a ship to export the cattle, that should have been done. Instead the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry put every obstacle in the way of Mr. Smyth.

Farmers in the west had been encouraged to go into this business but now they have very serious problems in exporting their cattle. I compliment the staff of Horan International Airport. Mr. Smyth has also complimented them on the way they treated him. He had promised that he would be exporting pigs, lambs and other livestock from the west from Horan International Airport. This airport would have been his main hub and we are sorry to have lost that business. I ask the Minister to apologise to Mr. Smyth for not taking his calls. If there was a problem with the consignment that travelled from Knock somebody should have explained the position to Mr. Smyth and sought ways to resolve it.

If the Government is not prepared to take action it should not put obstacles in the way of other people. If the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste stayed in the country they would know the problems facing people in the west.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mr. O'Shea): I thank Deputies for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to clarify the position. Since the withdrawal of Pandoro from the carriage of livestock by roll-on, roll-off transport from Rosslare to the Continent my Department has been in regular contact with livestock exporters and shippers in the matter of alternative transport arrangements. The organisation of alternative routes of supply is a matter [1696] for the commercial interests involved. My Department concerns itself with guaranteeing that the health and welfare of the animals are adequately safeguarded. This involves prior inspection of the means of transport and very often provisional approval for a trial journey. A veterinary inspector from my Department usually travels on the initial journey, especially if a new type of transport is involved.

In this context an application was received on 18 October for the use of air transport to carry a consignment of calves from Knock to Rennes in France. Clarification of certain issues was immediately requested and this was provided by the exporters' agent and by Balkan Airlines on 19 October. An inspection was then arranged on 20 October and a trial flight, accompanied by a veterinary inspector, was sanctioned for 21 October.

It should be emphasised that the carriage of calves by air from Ireland was last effected in the early 1970s and the penning arrangements in the planes used at that time were considerably different from the two-tiered penning system presented in this plane.

The trial consignment consisted of 210 calves from Northern Ireland and the flight took place on Friday, 21 October. A report was compiled by the veterinary inspector which drew attention to certain problems. Having examined the report, the veterinary authorities of the Department decided that a second trial flight was necessary and this decision was conveyed to the parties concerned on Wednesday 26 October. There was no undue delay.

That is still the situation and it is a matter for the commercial interests involved to arrange the second trial flight before a final decision can be taken on the plane's suitability for the transport of calves. My Department has to be satisfied about the welfare of these calves while being transported to the Continent, otherwise serious repercussions could ensue. I make no apology for ensuring that a high standard of [1697] welfare prevails and that is the over-riding factor that has governed all my Department's actions in this affair. Considerable numbers of live animals are exported and it is in our interest to ensure that the highest possible standards are observed. We have to be absolutely satisfied with the type of transport.

There has been much discussion recently about the decision of the ferry companies and about animal welfare generally. We have a very large and well developed beef processing sector in which a great deal of public investment has been made. That industry also provides valuable employment. The export of live animals to the Continent has continued and progress has been made in getting alternative transport arrangements. There has been no adverse effect on the price of cattle. We should avoid talking ourselves into a crisis where one does not exist.