26 September 1997

Ulster beef ban could be lifted by New Year

By Shelley Wright

ULSTER farmers hope to start exporting beef again by the end of the year after the EU commissions veterinary advisers signalled that progress towards lifting the 18-month-old beef ban was now possible.

Reviewing the governments proposals for a certified herd scheme last week, the scientific veterinary committee said that, on the whole, the proposals were acceptable – but only for areas with established computerised cattle traceability systems.

With Northern Ireland the only region of the UK with a database, the provinces farming leaders are now convinced that the government will submit a formal proposal to the EU commission very shortly seeking a lifting of the ban for herds in Northern Ireland that meet the certified herd criteria.

A MAFF spokeswoman said ministry officials had been in Brussels this week talking to the commission about what the next steps should be. Farm minister Jack Cunningham was still looking for a UK approach to get the ban lifted and formal proposals to allow the export of cattle born after Aug 1, 1996, were likely to be submitted within the next few weeks, she added.

Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday, Dr Cunningham did not rule out the prospect of Northern Ireland being the first to benefit from any relaxation of the ban. Half a loaf was better than no bread, he said. And Ulsters farm minister Lord Dubs told the provinces beef producers to "prepare for the re-opening of our export market".

Will Taylor, deputy president of the Ulster Farmers Union, said producers in the province were delighted that at last there seemed to be some grounds for hope. "Its the first positive step. We have had so much frustration in the past 18 months and at last we seem to have the first breakthrough," he said.

"We hope that producers on the mainland will now be banging on doors and thumping on tables to get a single database, compatible across the whole of the UK, so that this situation never arises again."

Britains farm unions, however, are now desperate to ensure that their producers are not left behind. NFU president Sir David Naish said any progress towards getting the ban lifted should be welcomed, as long as progress in the shape of a data-based scheme for the entire country followed immediately.

Sandy Mole, Scottish NFU president, said: "I am deeply concerned that we might be frozen out of the market for years to come. We continue to press government to present a proposal for the ban to be lifted on beef from cattle born after a certain date. But it is unrealistic to think there will be one scheme which favours Northern Ireland and then a simpler scheme for Britain."