Dáil Éireann - Volume 470 - 22 October, 1996

Private Member's Business. - Export Ban: Motion.

Mr. H. Byrne: I move:

That Dáil Éireann condemns the decision by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to agree to the arbitrary ban on the export [753] of beef from Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan to Russia and also condemns the mishandling by the Government and, particularly, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, of the BSE crisis since 20 March which has resulted in this débácle and calls on the Government to immediately make direct political and diplomatic representations by An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste and other senior Ministers in person at the highest level with all foreign markets so as to ensure that sale of Irish beef abroad and the thousands of jobs at home dependent on them are effectively protected and promoted.

Has the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, taken over the Agriculture portfolio? Many people in County Wexford would like that to happen.

Mrs. Doyle: Did the Deputy not hear the news?

Mr. H. Byrne: Must we wait for the Minister or Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry or is that Department interested in sending them?

Mrs. Doyle: The Deputy should have patience.

Mr. H. Byrne: I am a very patient person.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Leonard): The Deputy should proceed. It is not a matter for the Chair whether the Minister is present.

Mr. H. Byrne: I wish to share my time with Deputies Moynihan, Batt O'Keeffe and Davern.

Acting Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. H. Byrne: For the umpteenth time we are discussing BSE because every farmer, meat factory worker and haulage worker is concerned with the beef industry. They are particularly concerned with the Minister's action of last week, which amounted to a major faux pas. It was the biggest cock-up in the agricultural industry since the foundation of the State. The BSE crisis is on everyone's mind and it has worsened since 20 March.

Is the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry getting any support at Cabinet? He seems to be left on his own and his efforts are weak. That there is neither a Minister nor a Minister for State present to hear this debate is an absolute scandal——

Mrs. Doyle: There is a Minister present.

Mr. H. Byrne: I am referring to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Deputy Doyle's move to that portfolio would be an improvement. On Sunday, 20 November there was a damning comment from the Minister for Social Welfare on “Farrell”. He said: “They are rolling it in out there.” He was referring to farmers. That Minister, who is part of this Government, and two other back bench snipers from Democratic Left [754] are constantly embarrassing the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, condemning the agriculture industry and playing to the gallery. They use this narrow political agenda, ignoring the fact that the beef industry is much more than farmers. Thousands of workers, in factories, haulage and services, are involved in the beef industry.

Why does the Minister not point this out to his colleague in Government? I am not surprised he has made so little progress, apart from his disastrous mistakes. At a time when a section of our largest industry is in trouble, nothing can persuade Minister De Rossa or the Tánaiste to set aside their grudge match with the beef trade. Do they imagine that their supposed urban constituencies will somehow benefit from hardship elsewhere? It is the political hostility of this Government toward the beef trade and its indifference to what they narrowly perceive as a rural agenda that has set the tone of its response to the BSE crisis since 20 March.

The Minister will be judged on his response to the problem rather than the “spin” he puts on it. Farmers and others in the agricultural industry are not fools. Since 20 March, Fianna Fáil has repeatedly called for a concerted political response from the Government. A Cabinet sub-committee, headed by the Taoiseach, was to address the vital issue of consumer confidence and to campaign politically to keep our foreign markets open. The failure to do either led to the debacle in the departure lounge of Dublin Airport, where the Minister said the gun was put to his head. There he signed the deal that brands 25 per cent of our beef output not good enough for Russia. Some would ask if it was a water pistol that he was talking about.

I hold the Minister and the Government politically responsible for allowing themselves to be put into that position. The repeated warnings about serious trouble in the Russian market have been voiced on many occasions here. The salient political point is that this looming crisis met with a pathetically inadequate response from the Government. The most important contract for our main industry did not merit the attention of either the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste. Have we yet heard them speak on it in this House? Apart from token representations when matters were already at a dire impasse, no serious political efforts were made to save the integrity of the Irish beef herd. Today's assertion in the Seanad by the Minister that he will hold the line on the three counties partitioned already is too little, too late. It is also a clear admission that the agreement was a major blunder. That is no comfort to the counties concerned. The Minister is personally responsible for a major error of judgement and the Government is guilty of the criminal neglect of the industry as a whole.

Consumer confidence is at the heart of the BSE crisis. Much has been made of the Minister's promise of a system of traceability in the aftermath of the latest twist in the saga. Commentators have [755] failed to point out that the Minister has promised this system for months. Something he says he can deliver in weeks has not been produced in recent months. The irony of the Minister's latter-day conversion to consumer concerns is underlined by the cavalier attitude he took to Fianna Fáil's calls throughout 1995 for such a system. Who, he demanded, would pay for such a system? He could not persuade his Government to pay and he did not have the political backbone to ask the producers to pay. It would have been cheap at twice the price and the Minister will have to accept that. If a proper traceability scheme were in place, the regionalisation agreed with the Russians would not have been on the agenda.

The Minister should state tonight what the status of the much-promised traceability scheme is. Has he brought definite proposals to Government? Has he secured funding? If not, what other funding proposals does he have? Will he steal more from the arable aid scheme? The tragedy for the beef trade, and all who depend on it, is that events have totally outpaced the Minister's belated efforts. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry cannot command consumer confidence any longer. There is an urgent need to explore new structures on how the safety of our food can be assured.

It is with no joy that I commend this motion. I wonder how the Minister and the Deputies from the constituencies most affected can agree to this amendment, this pathetic response to our motion. It will be interesting to see whether the Ministers, particularly the Fine Gael Ministers and Deputies, will walk through the lobbies and vote with the Minister in relation to what he did last week. I do not know whether the Minister has had meetings with the IFA, the ICMSA, Macra na Feirme or individual farmers, but I can assure him they are not saying kind things about him. They believe what has been done is a disaster and has put the beef industry and agriculture into their worst state for a long time. Since 20 March the Minister has made no response of substance to the crisis they face.

Mr. Moynihan: Seo ceann de na rudaí is tábhachtaí a tháinig os comhair an Tí seo le fada an lá. Níl dabht ar bith ann ach go gcuimhneofar ar an Aire Talmhaíochta atá againn agus go mbeidh a ainm á lua i ngach tigh in Éirinn de dheasca an botching a dhein se ar an job seo agus é ag deileáil leis na Rúisigh.

It is with great concern that I address the House on what I believe to be the greatest crisis ever to face our key national industry. Tuesday last will go down as one of the darkest days ever for the beef industry with the announcement of the Russian ban on beef from three major beef producing counties.

There is disbelief in Cork that the Government and the Minister would accept a deal which partitions the country and classifies beef produced in Cork as of poorer quality. It is heartbreaking for [756] a county that has worked so hard to build up the industry and become one of the top food producing regions in Europe. It is outrageous and unacceptable that this deal was accepted by the Minister when there was no basis, scientific or otherwise, to justify a ban on Irish beef, and certainly not on the produce from counties Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan.

Irish agriculture has had a terrible year since the BSE problem came to a head in March and cattle prices collapsed with losses of up to £200 per animal. It is a bombshell to the farming community that the Government allowed another country to create internal barriers which bar certain farmers from trading their beef freely on international markets. This concession by the Minister plays into the hands of competitors in the international marketplace and creates a dangerous precedent for future negotiations.

I am outraged that anyone should suggest the quality of beef from Cork should be questioned. Food production in Cork is of the highest quality and excellence, based on a natural, clean, green environment. The Minister has made a huge mistake which must be immediately rectified. I call on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to go to Russia as a matter of urgency and have the deal renegotiated. The farmers of Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan cannot be sacrificed and their souls sold, as was done in these botched negotiations.

The Taoiseach has a strong case to go to Russia. Ireland has the most effective and toughest BSE controls. The Taoiseach must act swiftly if permanent damage is to be avoided. Foreign competitors may use this ban to undermine international confidence in the Irish industry while consumers at home will be concerned, leading to a further reduction in beef consumption.

Why were counties Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan singled out for exclusion when others have an equal rate of infection? The Minister's blunder must be corrected immediately. Otherwise it will devastate the economies of the counties involved and signal to the international beef business that 30 per cent of Irish beef, the amount produced by these three counties, is unsafe.

A major crisis is looming as a result of the Government's botching of the Russian deal. Farmers are concerned about the ability of the Minister and the Government to defend the cause of the agricultural industry. I again urge the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister to act urgently on this Russian deal. They have until 1 November to avert a disaster for Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan. Our current Presidency of the EU must be used to the full to restore hope for the future. Many in rural Ireland feel this Government has forgotten the plight of the farming community. It would be terrible if this period of the Irish Presidency were remembered as a time when agriculture went downhill.

Mr. B. O'Keeffe: Lest the Minister wonder why a Deputy from Cork South-Central should speak [757] on BSE and the difficulties manifesting themselves in the beef trade in Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan, let me remind him that my constituency has a rural hinterland. I sympathise with the dilemma in which the Minister finds himself, but he must accept that much of it is of his own making. He is obviously aware that he is the subject of quips in bars around the country. It has been suggested, for example, that given the Minister's party was involved in the deal partitioning this country in the first place, it is ironic that a Fine Gael Minister should have accepted further partitioning of the country by accepting the Russian beef deal.

Fianna Fáil can legitimately claim that from 20 March the Minister was being asked whether there was a problem with the Russian deal and indicated there was none. The Minister also must accept that we sought a more concentrated and concerted effort to deal with the difficulties, of which our spokespersons were aware, but there was no cohesion in the Government to ensure this was made. It is galling when this country currently holds the Presidency of the EU, an extremely powerful position. It is particularly galling, given the Tánaiste's travels around the world, that when this problem came to the fore he made no effort to visit Russia to deal with it on a political level. The Taoiseach as President of the EU did not have the interests of this country at heart when he could not ensure that a visit to Russia was included in his itinerary so that he could look after this country's major industry by meeting his counterparts in Russia. It is important to realise that the Russian economy is very dependent on the EU for funds to modernise its industry and agriculture. It is fair to say the Russians were bargaining from a weak position, given the amount of funds being poured into that country by the EU.

I listened to the Minister on “Questions and Answers” last night. He was rather facile about the difficulties in monitoring BSE in Cork, Monaghan and Tipperary. His comment was, in effect, “you can take it in one door and we can put it out the other”. It is not that easy; it will be almost impossible to monitor. We are left with a real dilemma. How will this further partitioning of the country be governed by the Minister and his Department?

One of the today's national newspapers stated that, in giving way to Russia on this issue, we will have problems with Libya and other markets. If those countries see that Russia has succeeded in banning beef imports from three counties in Ireland, is it not logical that they will demand something similar if veterinary surgeons from their countries deem it the appropriate course of action to assuage the concerns of their consumers? Has the Minister not dug a hole for himself, the Government and the country? Is he not likely to have to dig deeper as a result of his decision?

I accept that the gun was put to the Minister's head on the tarmac at Dublin Airport and that [758] he had to make a decision. Being a bookmaker, it is understandable that he opted to offset the odds and take what he could, giving little thought to the dire consequences for the beef industry in the three counties concerned. Today I spoke to a meat wholesaler from Cork. He is concerned because the shop owners he supplies are asking him where his meat is sourced. If that question is being asked by retailers, the question is also being asked of the retailers by consumers. Not only do we have a difficulty with the Russian market, but an extremely sensitive situation could arise in this country with regard to the three counties. I hope it will not happen.

If the Minister has no difficulty with the beef from the three counties, he should have held his ground. He should have ensured the veterinary surgeon would not be able to decide for his Government. He should have asked for further discussions with senior personnel in the Russian Government. That was the main mistake. Two mistakes were made. During the preceding period the Government and the Taoiseach had not done their homework. In the final analysis, the Minister blinked when the water pistol was put to his head. I am sorry he did that.

The policy of divide and conquer has always been a disaster and I am sorry it was adopted in this instance. I envisage a problem arising with cattle prices. The Minister might say the price of cattle remained stable last Monday, but he cannot give a guarantee that it will remain stable in the marts in Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan over the next few weeks.

In digging a hole for himself, the Minister has endangered a most important industry. Our fear is that he will dig that hole deeper. The concerted effort and performance currently required is not evident in the Government. I listened to the Minister for Social Welfare, Prionsias De Rossa, speaking on television last Sunday night. His attitude was that the farmers are rolling it in. His remarks offered us a perception of the animosity in Democratic Left to the farming community and the major contribution it makes to the economy.

It is a sad day for the farmers in Cork. Fine Gael Deputies from that county are having a harrowing time and I am not surprised. I am sorry for them; it is a difficult situation but they deserve it. Their chagrin should be addressed to the Minister.

I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputies Kirk and Davern.

Acting Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Kirk: This is a most serious issue for the beef industry. The ongoing debate about BSE will allow Members to focus their attention on the industry in a wider context. Clearly, there is a crisis in the beef industry; it has existed for some time. There are those who believe the structure of the industry, apart from the current difficulties with BSE, is in need of examination. Recently, when talking about the future of the agricultural [759] industry the Minister said the cattle available were of elephantine proportions. Those who are dealing with the agricultural industry on a regular basis would find it difficult to disagree with those sentiments. If we are to produce the type of animal which the industry requires and which the consumer wants changes need to be made as quickly as possible. The problem is with the breeding programme pursued at farm level, not only by the individual beef farmer but by a large number of dairy farmers and their decisions on an annual basis. Much of the supplies for the beef industry have their origins in beef farms throughout the country. The reality is that many of those decisions are incompatible with the best long-term interests of the beef sector within the agricultural industry as a whole. If an individual dairy farmer decides to use a breed in his herd in a particular year, it will take the best part of three years before it impacts on the beef industry.

When the Minister made his observation about the animals being of elephantine proportions he should have followed it up and said the time has come when his Department, or the advisory services acting for and on behalf of his Department, should look at the industry in its totality, the dairy industry, the beef industry and the integrated relationship between the two. If decisions are being taken in the dairy sector which are incompatible with the best interests in the beef sector then they need to be addressed immediately. I am not blaming the Minister particularly. The advisory services need to examine this issue.

The reality is that if dairy farmers are using, for instance, Holstein Friesians and come back into the beef production chain this is perhaps an excuse for the use of angel dust. It is not possible to produce beef cattle within a certain budget and to make a reasonable margin of profit by using those breeds to produce beef.

In regard to BSE and the most recent problem, three counties, my neighbouring county of Monaghan and counties Cork and Tipperary have been excluded from the Russian market and are in danger from being excluded from other markets also. This is a very serious development. We cannot predict what will happen in the next month or the next two months. The Minister cannot predict what will happen during that period. God forbid, but if there are outbreaks of additional cases of BSE in some other county what will happen? Will they be added to the hit list? Will we finish up with the whole country being banned from all the markets which are essential to our survival? At a time when the Minister is President of the Council of Ministers of Agriculture and bearing in mind that the BSE crisis affects the beef industry throughout Europe, particularly in Britain, we are not sinners, we are sinned against. The decision of the then Minister in the period around 1989 to slaughter out was clearly a wise one. At the time I am sure it was not palatable medicine for individual farmers but it was the right decision. The [760] decisiveness of that decision should be bearing better fruit for the industry. I will have an opportunity later in the week to go into more detail on specific points. I wish to share my time with Deputy Noel Davern.

Mr. Davern: Disbelief is the only word I can use to describe the Minister's actions. He has presided over the most dangerous precedent ever. He has admitted we have BSE when in factwe had 36 cases this year, one of which is being investigated by the Garda Síochána as being deliberately induced somewhere along the line.

Wexford has four cases of BSE, the same number as the whole of County Tipperary. There are 279,000 animals in Wexford while we have 642,000 in north and south Tipperary yet Tipperary is excluded while Wexford is not. Earlier seven counties were to be excluded. The Minister sacrificed Tipperary for the sake of expediency so unless we have rodeo shows or make our animals pets there is no future for beef farmers, particularly in North and South Tipperary.

I support our county council which has implemented the Abattoirs Act since October 1992 when other counties did not, at a cost to our ratepayers of £140,000 a year. Under the Act every animal is examined before and after slaughter to guarantee to consumers in our constituency that those animals are free from all induced products and antibiotics, yet other counties do not provide this service. The Minister has done nothing about that despite the fact that we went to the Minister of State two years ago when the Minister would not meet us on the issue but he did nothing about it. What are we to say to the people? They have paid money to provide a good service to guarantee our consumers yet the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry cannot guarantee that animals from South Tipperary abattoirs going to the meat factories are BSE free. The Minister could not give that guarantee to the Russians but I stand over it.

What will happen if the Iranians say they will not accept beef from Limerick. If they say they will not accept beef from Wexford, the Minister will certainly do something about it. There is no case of BSE in south Tipperary. Veterinarywise, under the County Council Act, we are a different regime. North Tipperary has four cases of BSE, one of which is being investigated, yet we are all lumped in the same boat. The Minister has destroyed the name of Tipperary, which we have spent years building up, by his acquiescence and his cowardly act on the steps of the plane — as I heard one of his backbenchers say — trying to sort out which papers he would sign quickly before the Russian negotiator would board the plane. The Minister has destroyed the beef industry in Tipperary, an industry of which we are proud and in which we have confidence. Will he tell the farmers of the Golden Vale they have no future? Already he has said there will be 30,000 fewer farmers in 25 years. He is now ensuring that figure will rise.

[761] One of the Labour Party backbenchers said on local radio that the Russians told him they had found BSE in a product from south Tipperary. The Minister said he had no choice, he did. He represents the Twenty-six Counties, not 23. I will have an opportunity on Thursday to say a little more about this but the Minister should be aware that he has let down the farmers of County Tipperary. He should come down now and give them the glib talk which he tried to give them previously.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mr. Yates): I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and insert the following:

“Dáil Eíireann endorses the efforts of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to facilitate and ensure the continued export of Irish beef to Russia and commends the strategy and actions of the Government and the Minister in protecting the export market for Irish beef, in defending the interests of the sector overall and in helping to overcome the effects of the BSE crisis”.

Mr. H. Byrne: Did Government backbenchers see the wording of the amendment before it was tabled and did they agree with it?

Mr. Yates: Having listened to a three hour debate in the Seanad this afternoon and to the opening 40 minutes of this debate, I should be given an opportunity to have my say.

Acting Chairman: I will endeavour to ensure that the Minister has his say.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister is very narky; it must be caused by guilt.

Mr. Yates: Notwithstanding the fact that you are from Monaghan, Chairman, I look to you to ensure that I am given the opportunity to put my point across.

The message I want to send to consumers is that the difficulties we experienced with the Russian market — or could experience in other markets — were directly linked to the number of cases of BSE. Last year there were 16 while the previous year there were 19 cases. To date this year there have been 38 cases, and there will be more. I want to make it clear that we have put in place the tightest controls in the world. I very much regret that these controls were not in place five years ago. They include taking the depopulated meat out of the food chain. Fianna Fáil in Government did not do this and I introduced this control last January. We are also taking out the cohorts — in other words, if a cow in County Cork is infected we trace the animals which were previously in the same herd and which might have eaten the same foodstuffs — and the progeny. Most important of all — and people can be reassured about this — I am satisfied from the [762] veterinary evidence that nearly all these extra cases can be attributed to eating infected meat and bonemeal. We have had a ban since 1990 and many of the animals now infected with BSE were born after this date. I have put in place the toughest licensing measures and set up a task force to implement the control, sale, purchase and distribution of meat and bonemeal. I want people to be assured about the effectiveness of these controls. I do not want the issue to be turned into a political football as it would take from the reassurances which can be given to consumers.

I move my amendment for two reasons: first, because it is a true and accurate reflection of the real situation and of my actions and those of the Government and, second, because the Opposition motion is naturally opportunistic, unrealistic and self-contradictory. The statement by Stephen Dorrell in the House of Commons on 20 March last set off a sequence of events which impacted on every aspect of the beef industry. It raised the spectre, however tenuous — and in my view it is very tenuous — of a link between BSE and CJD, generated a wave of consumer hysteria, created an immediate drop in beef consumption and led to a total ban on beef and cattle exports from the UK and the planned destruction, by incineration, of one million animals. These were dramatic events by any standards. One would sometimes think that all this was my fault. However, the truth is that these are internationally acknowledged events.

Seven months after the event we have reached the position where a ban on the UK remains in place for the foreseeable future, where a flurry of scientific activity is taking place on BSE and related issues and where all aspects of our controls on BSE have been subjected to the most detailed examination. Last Sunday and Monday I attended SIAL, the largest food marketing event in the world, which this year was held in France. While there are particular difficulties in the French market, I am glad to say that confidence in the product is returning and, although it is down 21 per cent in France, consumption is beginning to increase. We must recognise that beef as a product has suffered and it is doubtful if it will ever fully recover its primary position within the meat sector relative to pig and poultry meat.

Ireland is a major producer of beef; it is the largest exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere. We are more dependent economically on beef than any other member state; we are more dependent on it than Europe is on agriculture as a whole. The other side of the coin is that we have more to lose if there is a backlash against the product. We, rightly, took considerable time and effort to reassure our consumers. Much time and attention has been devoted to ensuring that the trade rules in Europe allow full access for our products to European markets. There are legal rights involved and mischievousness should not give rise to a scare about our exports to Europe. These rights are sacrosanct and are guaranteed [763] under existing rules. The ring-fencing of the export ban to Britain was successfully achieved.

Our markets in third countries deserve the same time and attention. They are entitled to the same assurances and to the same detailed answers to technical questions. Much of this has been done through direct contact between the respective veterinary services and through our embassies and An Bord Bia. I wish to point out to Fianna Fáil Deputies that this crisis began in 1989. However, no Government sub-committee was set up at that stage. The Iran market was closed in 1990 and remained closed for three years.

Mr. Sheehan: This was under a Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture.

Mr. Davern: The Deputy should stick to fishermen and sheep and stay out of the beef sector.

Mr. Yates: The same technical approach was taken at that time——

Mr. H. Byrne: Beef is 82p per pound.

Mr. Yates: ——but I have taken a stronger political line than my predecessor and the environment has changed radically since 20 March.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister can sing that one.

Mr. Yates: Each third country will make up its mind on the basis of its analysis of the scientific data, on the efficiency of our controls and on its perception of the risks involved. It is our task to have sound and effective controls and to put forward the scientific and technical agreements to enable them to have confidence in our product. It is generally accepted that we have good controls in relation to BSE, and these have been refined and perfected since the first elements of the system were put in place in 1990.

The suggestions by Deputy Kirk and others that the depopulation policy is the full answer are naive and we must not lull ourselves into a false sense of security on this point, as some Members on the opposite benches seem to have done. The control regime on BSE is complex and detailed and requires the proper and full implementation of a series of measures across the different elements of the beef industry. For example, I have found it necessary to strengthen the implementation of the ban on meat and bonemeal, which is the source of the problem in the first instance. It has also been necessary to broaden the scope of the depopulation policy.

I have outlined to the House the events in regard to the Russian market. The signing of the veterinary Protocol was the culmination of a sequence of events over a period of two months. There was a choice between signing or not signing the Protocol, and either decision would have had consequences. It was not a question of breaking [764] under pressure, of losing nerve or conceding too soon, as has been presented by some quarters.

Mr. H. Byrne: By lots of quarters.

Mr. Yates: If I understood correctly what was said today, the number of quarters is declining.

Mr. Davern: If we are talking about quarters in an animal sense they are certainly declining.

Mr. Yates: It was a question of weighing the options and making the correct decision in terms of the beef industry and the overall national interest.

Mr. Davern: Another partitionist policy — abandon counties Tipperary, Cork and Monaghan.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Let us have order, please.

Mr. Yates: It has been suggested that it might have been more cute politically not to have signed the Protocol.

Mr. H. Byrne: No one knows more than the Minister about being cute politically.

Mr. N. Treacy: The Minister should take his brief seriously.

Mr. Yates: That may or may not be the case, but the consequences of not signing need to be fully understood.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister could write a book on political cuteness.

Mr. Sheehan: The Deputy would know all about that.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We cannot have these constant interruptions. This is an important debate and it should be conducted in an orderly fashion.

Mr. Yates: The consequences of not signing would have meant an immediate and total ban on beef exports to Russia and we would have been cut off from our most important market which has an import requirement for approximately half a million tonnes of beef. There is a surplus of one million tonnes of beef in Europe and there are plenty of competitors to seize this opportunity.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister handed it to them.

Mr. Yates: We would have been left to the mercies of safety net intervention while producer prices would have fallen by 5p per pound. It is no harm to tell people what happened under Fianna Fáil. It lumped 800,000 tonnes of beef into intervention because all the markets folded. I have kept intervention to a minimum.

Mr. H. Byrne: Beef is 82p per pound.

[765] Mr. Yates: It has been suggested that we should have called the Russians' bluff. I would like to know what those who pursue this line think the bluff was.

Mr. D. Ahern: Why is the Minister going to Russia after the damage has been done?

Mr. Yates: The issues of price and quantity were not on the agenda as these were commercial matters.

Mr. McGinley: The Deputies' bluff is being called.

Mr. Yates: Given the scenario I have outlined it would be foolhardy to think the Russians would come running after us. It has been conveniently forgotten there were problems with that market in 1990 and again in 1993.

Mr. Davern: Good ministerial management.

Mr. Yates: It took us almost three years to get back into the market in Iran when they imposed a ban in 1990, so we know that once a ban is imposed it is not easily lifted.

Mr. Sheehan: Who was Minister for Agriculture then?

Mr. Yates: It certainly would not have been lifted during the peak killing season which is just now.

Mr. H. Byrne: Did they have a word with Proinsias before they came?

Mr. Yates: It has been suggested I should have played for time and continued discussions up to 1 November. Anyone with the remotest knowledge of the meat trade will say contracts are negotiated in advance and it takes weeks to organise and supply a contract of the type and volume which goes to Russia. I would have been faced with the prospect I was faced with last Easter when I had boats bobbing up and down in the bay of Alexandria, trying to get into Egypt which had imposed an overnight ban. Is that what people in practical terms are suggesting? No new contracts would have been signed from the moment Dr. Avilov returned, because of their state purchasing system. The trade needed to know where it would stand after 1 November. The lag time involved meant we were already past midnight in that regard. By signing the Protocol I protected our position in the Russian market and I have ensured the momentum of increasing exports to that market. We will continue to sell large quantities of beef to Russia and we have the option of reviewing the condition of exclusion zones in three months. Contracts are now being signed for the period ahead. I took the correct decision in signing the Protocol and I believe that events are already proving that.

[766] Mr. D. Ahern: Why is the Minister going to Russia?

Mr. Yates: I am not going for some time.

Mr. Sheehan: Give the Minister a chance.

A Deputy: We are not selling the Minister, we are selling beef.

Mr. Sheehan: We are selling the beef to Russia.

An Leas-Cheann-Comhairle: I do not intend to preside over this level of disorder. Even though it is Private Members' Time, time is very precious. I will suspend proceedings if I have to rise again. I can assure the House I will do that. Please let us have some order and let the Member in possession speak without interruption.

Mr. Yates: It was suggested in this House last week that we should not be negotiating with a chief veterinary officer. Some of the comments I have heard in the last 48 hours that are still persisting are deeply insulting to Dr. Avilov and cast a slur on Russians.

Mr. McGinley: He is an honourable man.

Mr. Davern: The Deputy would not recognise Dr. Avilov if he knocked him down.

Mr. Yates: The clear implication is that his scientific opinion was nonsense, which is something I reject. The relationship the Russian Department of Agriculture, their medical, health and veterinary services have with Ireland is something I value. I wish to ensure it continues on an amicable and profitable basis in the future. Countries which import from us want assurances on animal and public health issues. If someone is seriously suggesting we should not hold these discussions at a technical level, they are not in the real world nor are they acting in the best interests of our industry. As I pointed out in the Seanad today, if the Irish chief veterinary officer submitted a report to the Minister of Health that a consignment of poultry meat or vodka coming from Russia should be banned, would anyone in this House say the Government should override it?

Mr. H. Byrne: What did Senator D'Arcy say?

Mr. Yates: I have no problem with political intervention and no compunction in involving myself directly in these issues. However, it must be at the right time, in the right context and in circumstances where political intervention will be helpful. The reality is that Dr. Avilov holds the responsibility in this area and there has been considerable prior political contact from Prime Ministerial level downwards. As confirmed by the Russians, the ban would have been in effect but for that political contact. I am intrigued by the argument that we should have an independent food inspectorate while at the same time criticising [767] the idea that the decision on this issue should be left to the Russian chief veterinary officer.

This decision should be judged on three criteria, which I am happy to be judged on. These are, whether other countries follow suit; second, whether differentiated pricing will happen in the counties concerned, relevant to the rest of Ireland; and third, whether we continue to sell large volumes to Russia. I maintain that on all three scores which are vital to farmers' incomes I will be totally vindicated. I have no evidence that either of the first two scenarios will happen. The report in The Examiner that there was a threat Iran and Libya would follow suit is absolute and total nonsense. They never checked with our Department. There is no indication of that information and it is mischievous and alarmist in the extreme.

Mr. H. Byrne: They said the same about Russia.

Mr. Yates: Either way, I will not be signing Protocols on that basis for those markets.

Mr. H. Byrne: Because the Minister made a mistake.

Mr. Yates: Farmers can be in no doubt because there is a difference between 16,000 tons and 120,000 tons.

Mr. Davern: The Minister is prepared to abandon the Tipperary farmers.

Mr. Yates: We have individual Protocols with different third countries which we supply, for example, Algeria, and none have sought changes. I have seen a report today suggesting that other countries are following suit. This is totally untrue and mischievous. I have made clear on many occasions that Iran had sought regionalisation, which I rejected, before the Russians sought it. It has been implied that at the last minute there was some arm wrestling. I have given thought to regionalisation and discussed it with Government colleagues for the last two or three weeks before this decision was made. It was a cold, calculated decision, made in the national interests of the beef industry. Anyone who had regard to the national interest would make the same decision.

Mr. Davern: It was cold, calculating and partitionist.

Mr. Yates: Libya has been a market for live cattle, not beef. When I visited Libya in July there was no mention of regionalisation. There has been no mention of it since. We are waiting for a Libyan veterinary delegation to come here. Their contractual arrangement with Australia does not require them to import animals at this time but I believe that will change. I can only speculate that [768] the sources who make these false claims are damaging the industry.

Mr. Sheehan: That is all they are doing.

Mr. Yates: There is no justification for a regionalised price. While Russia is our single most important market, it is not our only market. It accounts for 26 per cent of our exports. We sell two thirds of our beef in Europe and in other third countries. While I can understand the concern and emotion in the counties involved, I cannot understand the chorus of fatalistic comments from people who should know better, predicting all sorts of dire consequences from the decision which have no foundation in reality.

Mr. D. Ahern: The Minister will eat his words.

Mr. Yates: I have every confidence that we can continue to sell large volumes of beef into Russia and increase the tonnage going into that market.

Mr. Sheehan: Hear, hear.

Mr. Davern: Deputy Sheehan is whistling past the graveyard.

Mr. Yates: It is important we move ahead. This Protocol stands. The real culprit is BSE. If we did not have BSE we would not be having this debate. We would not have to go to extremes to provide assurances to third countries. The sad fact is that we do have BSE and had more this year than in any previous year. Discussions with third countries are held in this framework. They consider that we have BSE, albeit at a low level. We have to be prepared for hard questions and strict conditions. We may think some of these conditions unreasonable and unscientific. However, we are the sellers and they are the buyers. That fact seems to have escaped a lot of commentators.

Mr. Sheehan: And Fianna Fáil.

Mr. Yates: When the BSE crisis unfolded there were dire predictions for beef consumption, markets and farmers' income. Given the nature of this problem, the record of this Government stands up to the most critical scrutiny. It will stand it against that of any previous Minister who had to deal with BSE, with not a fraction of the level of difficulty I or other countries have faced. Consumption is now recovering in this country and across Europe. Our beef exports have held up much better than expected. There have been predictions that we would take at least 100,000 tonnes into intervention this autumn, which has not happened. There has been a consistent flow of product out of this country over the past few months and it is widely recognised that our beef export trade has been performing very well. Russia has taken the lion's share but a range of other markets has also performed well. The Saudi Arabian market reopened last Tuesday. This is a [769] pivotal and high priced market in the Gulf region. It is worth £50 million per annum. Producer prices have stabilised over the past few weeks and if anything, the underlying trend has been upwards.

Mr. M. Ahern: Are the prices right in West Cork?

Mr. Yates: A flexible and workable intervention mechanism was there when we needed it. I have succeeded in getting flexibility from the EU Commission on carcase weights, grades and quantities. Everyone accepts intervention is only a short-term solution and more fundamental measures are required to achieve a balance in the sector in the light of the market position post 20 March. A package of proposals is currently under discussion at the Council of Ministers. I hope to chair three or four days and nights of intensive discussions next week in Luxembourg on reforming the beef sector to reduce production in line with the reduction in consumption.

Mr. Sheehan: Hear, hear.

Mr. H. Byrne: What does that mean?

Mr. Yates: There are diverging views among member states on the elements of the package, but there is strong consensus that action is needed. While all this hullabaloo has been taking place I have been involved in intensive ticktacking with my colleagues trying to secure a major achievement for the Irish Presidency, agreement on reforms in the beef sector.

Mr. H. Byrne: Was the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, on the Minister's side?

Mr. Davern: What does the Minister mean by ticktacking?

Mr. Yates: My objective is to ensure the measures taken are balanced and fair and that they will achieve the desired result. I will also ensure that we will protect our production base. Given our dependence on beef and on the export outlet we have more to lose from an unbalanced beef market than any other member state. That argument has been misconstrued and perhaps deliberately misunderstood. While I am not saying we should accept measures that are against the best interests of our industry, it is in our best interests to address the reality of the market as it stands and if hard decisions are necessary they should be made sooner rather than later so that we can get the necessary benefits. We will not do farmers or the industry any favours by allowing the problem, the overhang of beef on the market, to spill over into 1977. I want farmers to know I am not being distracted from this important task, which must be addressed urgently. A compensation package of more than £70 million has been [770] secured to assist farmers and this money was paid out rapidly and recently.

Mr. H. Byrne: From where did it come?

Mr. Sheehan: The cheques are already in the post and some have been delivered.

Mr. H. Byrne: Did the Minister steal it from another scheme? Is it a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputies, please.

Mr. Yates: It may not cover all the losses but it will go a long way towards relieving the difficulties. There has been a very wide spread of assistance across the different categories of beef producers, with assistance for heifer producers for the first time, and for producers of bulls and live exports. The deseasonalisation premium has been secured almost in perpetuity and will be worth £16 million a year uniquely to Irish producers. It will help farmers make decisions and have confidence in the early part of next year. On 1 January farmers will get £58 more per head because of decisions I negotiated in Brussels. We lost our eligibility under Fianna Fáil.

Mr. Davern: The Minister did not mention Cork, Tipperary or Monaghan in his speech and Deputy Sheehan ignored it.

Mr. Yates: I have had 15 hours of debate this week and I have just come from a meeting with Tipperary farmers who are happy with the veterinary certificates we signed this morning.


Mr. Yates: Irrespective of its multifaceted nature, every issue which has arisen in this unfolding situation has been tackled. The Government has adopted a cohesive approach on the matter. I have had the full support of the Taoiseach and all my Cabinet colleagues——

Mr. D. Ahern: The Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, did not support him on the Farrell show on Sunday.

Mr. Yates: ——irrespective of whether it was on the IMPACT strike, a special compensation package for the rendering industry or surveillance on the Border. The Estimate for my Department will record a whopping overspend this year, as high as £90 million, related to the BSE issue. Every time I have asked the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or the Minister for Finance for support, they have been forthcoming.

Mr. H. Byrne: What about the Minister for Social Welfare?


[771] Mr. Yates: We operate on the basis of collective responsibility. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have got involved directly with their counterparts in a number of markets where problems have existed. Problems remain in two important markets, Libya and Iran, where the problems in 1990 also took the most time to resolve. I visited Libya and we are awaiting the visit of a veterinary delegation from there. An Iranian veterinary delegation came here recently and considerable progress was made on a veterinary Protocol. Some outstanding issues remain to be resolved and I intend to visit Iran in due course.

Mr. M. Ahern: That is what the Minister said last July.

Mr. Yates: I have had the full support of the Tánaiste——

Mr. Davern: Not the Tánaiste.

Mr. Yates: ——in my efforts to reopen these markets. Our diplomatic service has been very active and I thank ambassadors across the world and the Tánaiste, who helped us deal with the BSE crisis. Our entire diplomatic service is fully mobilised on this issue. Despite all the cant and hyperbole I have not heard any constructive suggestions from the other side of the House. The only suggestion I have heard is that we should threaten the Russians and seek to have refunds cut. If Members want to burn bridges, that is the way to proceed.

Mr. H. Byrne: What about the Skibbereen man behind the Minister, he is afraid of the water.

Mr. Yates: In the first place the EU Commission would not agree to such a proposal because it would mean a greater reliance on intervention and we would alienate our customers and give an advantage to competitors.

Mr. H. Byrne: The Minister has caved in.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister, without interruption.

Mr. Yates: The French would be the first to seize such an opportunity.

I can readily understand the motion and concern for producers in the counties involved, but the reaction to this decision has been out of all proportion to the issues involved. It is a time for cool heads and a steady pragmatic approach to ensure this Protocol causes the minimum disruption. It is no surprise that when a cool head is needed the first people to show the opposite characteristics are the members of the Fianna Fáil Party. I am disgusted at the alarmist nonsense of politicians on local radio stations and newspapers. They are merely trying to terrify farmers. Deputy O'Keeffe said last week that Cork farmers would lose £60 million. I have heard arrant nonsense on [772] this matter. People can be reassured that I have negotiated a Protocol with a clear review clause which kept us in the match for the three most important months of the year. I have maintained prices, I have avoided regional disparity and, more importantly, this will——

Mr. M. Ahern: The Minister is closing down vegetable processing plants.

Mr. Yates: ——put money in people's pockets. That is what farmers are interested in. They can have every confidence that I will continue to work in their best interests as well as in the national interest.

Mr. Davern: The Minister made an announcement tonight about the good news he had for south Tipperary farmers. He refused to give it here in the House, but he gave it at a political level. That is typical of the Minister. If that is the way the House treats these people, I have to walk out.

Mr. Sheehan: They would not even talk to the Deputy.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Davern, resume your seat and allow us proceed with the business of the House.


Mr. Davern: This is a shame.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy should not speak from the floor of the House.

Mr. Leonard: I wish to share time with Deputy Michael Ahern.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I am sure that is agreed.

Mr. Leonard: The motion before us deals with the arbitrary ban on the export of beef to Russia from three counties. Beef exports have been banned from three counties while we are importing junk foreign poultry contaminated with salmonella which could cause serious damage to our poultry industry. Last Tuesday's announcement by the Minister to ban exports of beef to Russia from Counties Cork, Monaghan and Tipperary set a dangerous precedent which will haunt the Minister and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry for many years. By excluding exports from those counties, he is excluding between 25 and 30 per cent of the national herd. That is selective discrimination.

Since 1989 ten counties have had a higher incidence of BSE than County Monaghan and three others had a similar incidence. In all, 13 counties have had a similar incidence to County Monaghan. With the exception of five counties, the other 21 had outbreaks since 1990. We had none from 1990 to 1996 when there were three. [773] Some of those outbreaks were questionable and I do not know whether they have been fully examined by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

It is selective discrimination. During the early 1980s the Border region was devastated by the rise in fuel prices introduced by the Coalition Government's budgets of 1983 and 1984. People were taking buses from Cork and Dublin to shop north of the Border. That caused the closure of filling stations as well as devastating the whole area. We sent deputations to the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Finance asking them to help the Border areas which had suffered so much economically through Government decisions to raise the price of petrol and many other products. The stock answer, however, was that it is not possible to legislate for a region, yet the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry has done just that. Not only did he legislate for one region but for three regions. For that alone the Minister must be condemned.

On this occasion the Russians called the tune. With a population of 51,000, County Monaghan has the highest number of people per capita employed in the food industry but only a small percentage of them are in the beef industry. Most are engaged in poultry production like duck, turkey and broiler hens. All the ducks produced in Monaghan are processed and exported under a local Monaghan brand. Some 75 to 80 per cent of turkeys are produced in County Monaghan by Grove Turkeys. My great fear is that once County Monaghan has been branded it will remain so. A number of factories in the county make prepared foods for Aer Lingus and other companies and in so doing they create much employment which is important for the economy. When a county is victimised it has an effect on the meat industry generally.

Most of the county's food industries, and all of them in the poultry sector, were set up without the support of primary producers and never got a penny of grant aid or other assistance. The only money that went into the region was through FEOGA for processing plants. Such industries will be hard hit because they have been branded and are carrying that stigma of the ban. It is very serious.

Much has been said about traceability and the movement of animals. Six years ago TB was at its worst in Monaghan, Cavan and South Fermanagh. At the time we visited the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to have meetings with officials there and with vets in the county. We were told that computerisation was all that was needed. I suggested the introduction of a stock register similar to that in Northern Ireland where farmers must record the movement of all cattle into and out of herds. According to my notes of those meetings six years ago we were told that computerisation would be introduced within two years, yet I am informed that computerisation has been on the back burner. The dust may now be wiped off the proposal and [774] there will be much talk about what will be done but it should have been done earlier. Our concern was to have closer tabs kept on the movement of animals.

Questions are being asked about how genuine the outbreaks of BSE are. The numbers are, admittedly, not high and have not been since 1989. It is sad to compare these figures with the four digit ones in the North. Have the Minister's officials and vets examined each outbreak closely and scientifically? Are they satisfied that they are genuine cases or were they imposed? That is one of the biggest fears people have about the increase in BSE cases, even if it only totals three in County Monaghan. There should be a closer examination of such cases to make sure the outbreaks are genuine. In that case we can make sure it does not happen again. The Minister mentioned people's concern that since action was taken in 1989 three or four year old cattle are still displaying instances of BSE.

Earlier I mentioned the increase in cases of salmonella in Cork due to imported foreign poultry. That was reported in the Irish Independent. Salmonella is the most dreaded poultry disease and would prompt departmental officials to consider drastic action like slaughter. There is no need for such imports. It is all very well to talk about a common market, but imported products should be of a standard and should be closely examined. We should not have alerts about the high incidence of salmonealla. We have adequate primary producers able to produce good quality products.

Since the market opened up I tabled many questions about restrictions or examinations on imported turkey chicks or broiler chicks and asked if the Department was satisfied that adequate controls were in place. I am not being alarmist but poultry producers are concerned. I am concerned for producers who have invested a large amount of money in building up their businesses. They did not get grant aid but loans from their bank managers who had confidence in them. As the newspapers reported, junk foreign poultry is replacing on the shelves the produce on which our producers spent so much money in preparing it for the market. There is a number of areas involved and the Minister should take cognisance of them as quickly as possible.

Surveys should be carried out not only of our production but of imports which should be closely scrutinised. It was proved last week that customers who buy our produce are hard to please and we should be equally hard to please, especially if there is any question of salmonella or other infected imported produce. There should be close examination of imported day old chicks.

Mr. M. Ahern: I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this issue. It is taxing the minds of many of my constituents since last week. I was surprised to hear the Minister say that cattle prices were holding, but that must be defined. At what level are prices holding? Are [775] they holding at the low level to which they fell——

Mr. Yates: They are at the level at which they have been for the past six weeks.

Mr. M. Ahern: ——or does he imply they have returned to the level they were at before the BSE crisis? The prices have fallen and he must accept that.

Mr. Yates: Prices have fallen all over Europe.

Mr. M. Ahern: They have fallen here and the producers are losing money. From checking the facts and figures and examining the accounts of some of my clients, I am aware that farmers are losing money. That is the bottom line. Last Tuesday when the Minister announced that 25 per cent of the beef industry was to be left out in the cold, he stated that a gun was placed to his head and he was forced to accept that counties Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan, were to be precluded from exporting beef to Russia.

I understood the Minister had to make a decision on the day, but from his speech here I note that he was mulling over it for a few months. That makes it worse. He does not appear to realise the importance of the beef industry. The records reveal that my county has quite an exemplary record in terms of the incidents of BSE. I am informed there was only one incident of BSE in my part of the county and that area holds the majority of cattle in Cork. During the past few weeks constituents from all political parties have expressed disgust about what has happened and what the Minister has done to the industry in East Cork.

This is the first time a Minister has put a question mark over the quality of our beef. He has given an imprimatur to those who are trying to undermine the industry. Other people have also undermined it, for instance those who have fed angel dust and growth promoters to animals. However, they are receiving their just deserts from the courts. The Minister will soon face a jury comprised of the Irish people and his backbenchers, who have been mute in the Chamber, will also face their constituents. Outside the Dáil they raised the questions we raised. They questioned the doubtful decision of the Minister. They realise what the Minister has done and what his supporters in Government have done is not for the benefit of the nation. The Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, said on the Farrell programme that farmers are rolling it in. To translate that into simple English he was saying the farmers were making too much money. As an accountant with a number of farmers on my books, I can tell him they are not rolling it in. A total of 80 per cent of the farmers are getting less than the average industrial wage. Senator Sherlock, a member of that Minister's party, who [776] questioned what has been happening recently in the Examiner gets quite a few votes from small farmers. Would he agree with the Minister, Deputy De Rossa? We have not heard from the Minister's partners, Deputies Lynch or Byrne. They have been quiet because they do not support him.

The Minister said there has been a cohesive approach by the Government to this matter. He has been joined by his ministerial colleague from Wexford, but there is no cohesiveness from Dublin or from any other part of the country. Where is the rest of the Labour Party? They are missing.

Mr. Yates: There is no Fianna Fáil Front Bench member here.

Mr. M. Ahern: There is no cohesiveness from the Democratic Left or Labour Party. They are not supporting the Minister.

Mr. Howlin: There is a Labour Cabinet Minister present.

Mr. M. Ahern: The Minister can check the record on everything related to agriculture in this House for the past two and a half years and he will note that he did not receive support from other members of the Government. The Minister has been left out on his own. He stated there was no positive suggestion from this side of the House. The positive suggestion in our motion is that the Government should immediately make direct political and diplomatic representations through the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other senior Ministers at the highest level with all foreign markets to ensure that the sale of Irish cattle abroad and thousands of jobs at home dependent on them are effectively protected and promoted. That is a positive suggestion. I challenge all the backbenchers who have been speaking with forked tongues to come in here tomorrow night and say what they really feel about the Minister's actions.

There is a great need to restore the Irish and international customer confidence in beef to increase consumption. To do this it is necessary to establish a traceability system, the cost of which would be £16 million to £18 million. I hope in the Estimates the Minister has ensured he will secure the money to put such a traceability system into operation. Irrespective of what producers do or how clean beef is, if customers do not have confidence in the industry and in the product they will not buy it. The Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy De Rossa, should row in behind the Minister to secure the necessary money to put such a system into operation.

Debate adjourned.