JACK Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, has reached a deal with the French which ministers believe will give them the breakthrough Britain has been fighting for two years to achieve with the lifting of the European export ban on British beef.

The Government is confident that it can win a vote to start lifting the export ban on beef from Northern Ireland, which is covered by a traceability scheme, at a two-day meeting next week of European agriculture ministers in Brussels following a round of jet diplomacy by Mr Cunningham. Officials said yesterday it could mean that Ulster beef could go on sale for export "within a few weeks".

Tony Blair regards the victory as so important for his government that the agenda is being arranged by the British presidency of the European Union to make sure the breakthrough can be announced on Monday to avoid it being overshadowed by the Budget 24 hours later.

The French abstained when the European veterinary committee voted by 10 to 4 to recommend the lifting of the ban, but Mr Cunningham secured the support of the French to back Britain at a meeting in Paris with the French agriculture minister, Louie Le Pensec.

The Germans are still holding out, with Spain, Luxemburg and Belgium, but Mr Cunningham is said to have told the Spanish agriculture minister at a meeting this week that he had enough votes lined up to secure victory.

A ministerial source said: "Jack has done a deal with the French, and he has got it in the bag now. There is always the chance of a slip, but it looks like we will win.

"It will show that a pro-European Labour government can do what a Euro- septic Tory government failed to achieve."

The Ulster traceability scheme was introduced to stop fraudulent cross- border trading in cattle. It has enabled the authorities to tag and trace every cow and calf in Northern Ireland, and to provide proof that BSE is not present in the herd.

Ministers are pressing ahead with a certified herd scheme for the rest of Britain to put all cattle on a computer base as big as the car registry at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Next Tuesday Jeff Rooker, the minister of state for agriculture, will visit the computer system in Workington, Cumbria, which will trace millions of cattle, when it is fully operational in September.

A Whitehall source said: "You can never guarantee these things, especially where Europe is concerned, but it is pretty unlikely the ministers will overturn the recommendations of the vets."