Dáil Éireann - Volume 474 - 06 February, 1997

Ceisteanna—Questions. Priority Questions. - Beef Exports.

3. Mr. R. Burke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the plans, if any, he has to utilise his position to initiate urgent steps to ensure a satisfactory resolution to the Russian and Egyptian beef bans which are having a detrimental effect on the Irish agriculture industry following the recent departure of the delegation of Egyptians vets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3213/97]

Mr. Spring: Throughout the current beef crisis I have been in regular contact directly and through my Department with the responsible authorities in the countries which import beef from Ireland. In the matter of meat and cattle [922] exports, I work in close co-operation with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

Most recently, I have been speaking to my Egyptian counterpart, who has been helpful in ensuring that the Egyptian veterinary authorities reviewed the recent suspension of live cattle imports. Following my contacts with him, the veterinary delegation to which the Deputy refers visited Ireland at short notice to investigate and report on animal health here. I spoke to the Egyptian Minister again this week and I understand that the veterinary report will now be submitted to the Egyptian government for consideration. Meanwhile, discussions are continuing between the veterinary experts about the regulations for the import of frozen beef from Ireland. I hope this matter will be resolved shortly.

Despite the limitations which have been placed on the sourcing of supplies, exports of beef to Russia have continued at a high level. I understand that under the agreement concluded in January between the veterinary service of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and its Russian counterpart, the list of counties from which beef for the Russian market may be sourced will be reviewed again in May. The Taoiseach had discussions with the Russian Prime Minister, Mr. Chernomyrdin, in Shannon.

My Department, particularly in the embassies abroad, continues to give the highest priority to the protection and development of the beef and cattle trade. I assure the Deputy that I will not hesitate to take any appropriate steps which may be found useful in this regard.

Mr. R. Burke: Normally questions on the beef trade are refused on the basis that the Tánaiste does not have direct responsibility but I welcome the fact that he has taken this one.

Does the Tánaiste agree, in view of the enormous problems facing the agricultural sector and the need for the greatest possible reassurance to consumers at home and abroad, that the greatest level of co-operation is required from all Government Departments to ease the problem created by BSE? Will he ensure there is the greatest level of co-ordination and co-operation? When does he expect the Egyptian market to be reopened for live cattle?

Mr. Spring: I agree with the Deputy in regard to the necessity for co-operation and the co-ordination in this industry. It exists at present. It is a very important industry and has been in difficulty. Last Saturday I had detailed discussions with the leadership of the IFA and the ICMSA on all aspects of the cattle trade. I have had at least five telephone conversations with the Egyptian Foreign Minister in regard to the Egyptian market. The technical commission came here at short notice. It has completed its work and will be reporting to the Government authorities in Egypt. I hope that will happen soon. I would like to think that shortly after that, on the basis of [923] what they saw in Ireland in terms of safety and procedure in the industry, the market will reopen.

Mr. R. Burke: Will the Tánaiste inform the House of the circumstances in which the Government, and in particular his own Department, has failed to secure a meeting of the Ireland-Iran joint commission which is the key to the opening of the important Iranian market for Irish beef? This is a vital market and there has not been a meeting of the Ireland-Iran joint commission. It is important that one is held. Has he any plans to visit Iran in the context of reopening this market for Irish beef?

Mr. Spring: The Deputy will understand from exchanges we have had in the House on this subject previously that the Iranian restrictions are public health motivated and their resolution is largely a technical matter for the veterinary experts. There have been two visits to Ireland by delegations from the Iranian veterinary organisation, in July and October 1996, and technical discussions are ongoing. The question of a ministerial visit to Iran is being kept under review. At present, it is important to concentrate on making progress at the technical level.

Mr. R. Burke: Similar problems as regards technical information have arisen with Egypt and Russia but in those cases the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and other Ministers have taken it upon themselves to make political contact. Does the Tánaiste accept that political contacts are vital if we are to reopen the Iranian market and that a meeting of the joint commission would be a first step; and will he specify if and when there is to be such a meeting? As Minister for Foreign Affairs, he rather than any other Minister is the appropriate person to make political contact in Iran to open the doors for Irish beef.

Mr. Spring: The Deputy will be aware that I met the Iranian Foreign Minister in New York last September and I had extensive discussions with the Deputy Speaker of the Iranian Parliament when he was here in October. The public health worries which the Iranians have made known to us must be overcome at a technical level. There are no plans for a joint commission meeting but we can review that matter.

Mr. R. Burke: A meeting of the joint commission is vital because we must send the right signals about the importance of the Iranian market for our beef. Holding such a meeting is the minimum which should be done. The Tánaiste met the Iranian Foreign Minister in New York but representatives of other countries have not been reluctant to visit Iran and there is no reason we should be either. The French showed no compunction about going there. It is vitally important that we be seen to press our national interest in [924] the income of our farmers, who have taken such a pounding over the last 12 months.

Mr. Spring: I note what the Deputy says. He is also aware that I offered dates for a joint commission meeting but they were not suitable to the Iranian side. From my contact with the farming community and living as I do in a rural constituency, I am aware of the importance of the beef sector. I will work closely with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the farm organisations so that everything which can be done to ensure good markets for Irish beef will be done.

Mr. R. Burke: The Government has failed to secure a visit from the Libyans with a view to reopening their market for Irish beef, despite assurances that such a visit was imminent. Will the Tánaiste inform the House of the steps, if any, being taken and the progress, if any, being made in this regard?

Mr. Spring: I do not have the details of the Libyan market in my brief but I will communicate with the Deputy because that is an equally important market.