Irish throw lifeline to UK beef farmers

Click to follow
Hopes that the first easing of the worldwide ban on British beef could begin within three to six months were held out yesterday by the Irish agriculture minister Ivan Yates .

He suggested that Northern Ireland could be the first region to enjoy a partial resumption of trade because of its low incidence of BSE and its unique cattle tracing system.

Welcoming the announcement that Britain will after all press ahead with a special slaughter of 100,000 cattle at risk of BSE, Mr Yates, who chaired yesterday's meeting of European farm ministers in Brussels, said it marked the beginning of a new phase, and "a significant step forward".

The ball is still in Britain's court. London must submit a blueprint for meeting EU conditions on herds certified free of BSE - essentially grass-fed animals - which is the first of the steps for the gradual lifting of the ban set out in the Florence agreement.

The Government will not be ready to proceed until the beginning of February, Mr Hogg told EU colleagues yesterday. Evaluation of this plan will then be conducted by two expert committees before a decisive vote in the EU's standing veterinary committee.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister was forced to withdraw an allegation that Tony Blair, the Labour leader, was "misleading" the Commons in angry clashes over the Government's U-turn on the selective cull.

Mr Blair said BSE - "mad cow disease" - was a "symbol of this government's incompetence". But as John Major hit back, the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, ordered the Prime Minister to withdraw the allegation that he had misled the Commons, regarded under Westminster rules as unparliamentary.

Mr Blair's attack touched a raw Tory nerve, by pointing out that in spite of the selective cull, there was still no timetable for the lifting of the ban, which Mr Blair said had been promised by Mr Major after the Florence summit.

The Labour leader told Mr Major: "You said the timetable was in our hands; not in European hands. You said that as a result, at the end of November, the ban would be lifted. It is clear you had no such agreement. The timetable is in the hands of the veterinary committee [of the EU]. You cannot give us a date." Mr Major replied: "You are misleading the House." After the Speaker's intervention, he said it was done innocently but Tory MPs accused Mr Blair of "dissembling".

Although nobody in Brussels yesterday was prepared to offer any certainty on a timetable given the likely difficulty in tracking high-risk cattle, Mr Hogg's announcement on the cull appears to have given a psychological boost to the negotiations.

Mr Yates said that if the "paperwork" in relation to certified herds can be dealt with in January and early February, then decisions could be expected "mid year" at the latest. It also appears that while the Government has ostensibly bowed to pressure from Scotland to seek a "UK-wide" lifting of the ban for grass-fed herds, rather than special treatment for Ulster, the criteria will be framed in such a way as to benefit Northern Ireland farmers long before others.

This suggests that the Ulster Unionists, who effectively hold the balance of power in Westminster, have been given assurances from the Government that their farmers will be first to emerge from the embargo.