3 November 1999
‘Low-risk’ N Ireland seeks BSE get-out
By Philip Clarke
NORTHERN IRELAND is set to ask the European Commission to grant it special status that would allow the province to relax many of its BSE-related controls.
Officials from the provinces Department of Agriculture will meet with European agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler later today (Wednesday).
They will tell him that BSE is far less prevalent in Northern Ireland compared with the UK mainland, and even lower than in some other member states.
Outbreaks of BSE are measured in terms of casualties per million head of adult cattle – a standard used by the Paris-based Office of International Animal Health.
Northern Ireland has had just 14 cases in 12 months, compared with 22 in the Republic of Ireland and 513 in Great Britain.
This is well below the 100 cases set by the Office of International Animal Health to separate “high risk” areas from “low risk” regions.
“Since we now have an even lower incidence of BSE than the south of Ireland, we should receive the same treatment,” said Wesley Aston of the Ulster Farmers Union.
Winning “low risk” status would allow Northern Ireland to drop the over-30-month scheme, (OTMS) and ease some of its other disease-related controls.
Most importantly, it would allow the province to resume beef exports on a normal commercial basis, including the shipment of live animals abroad.
Savings to the government would also be considerable. In the past two financial years, some £100 million has been spent on the OTMS in Northern Ireland alone.
Although a formal request for special status would have to come from London rather than from Belfast, there have already been encouraging soundings.
Representatives from the Ulster Farmers Union met two weeks ago with Peter Mandelson, Northern Irelands new secretary of state, who supported the move.
But it remains to be seen whether Westminster will share his enthusiasm for allowing separate treatment for Northern Ireland.
However, the fact that the province was allowed to start exporting beef under the certified herd scheme ahead of the rest of the UK is being taken as a positive sign.
Currently, the priority in Westminster is getting UK beef exports back into France and Germany.
But once that is out of the way, observers believe the next step could be winning further relaxation of controls for Northern Ireland.
“Labour might well take the view that it is better to get a foot in the door, rather than have the door slammed in their face,” said one insider.