Somersault may let Ulster farmers escape BSE ban

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Labour is planning an embarrassing Commons ambush on John Major over the mad cow crisis next week.

With their hand strengthened by the Government's shrinking Commons majority - down to one vote - the Ulster Unionists are piling on the pressure to free Northern Ireland farmers from the European Union ban on beef exports.

Labour hopes to stage a special Commons debate on the issue next Wednesday - opening the way for a vote. There were high-level Government indications last night that today's Cabinet would perform yet another somersault and allow the Ulster farmers to break free from the policy being applied throughout the rest of the UK.

It is being proposed that the additional selective cull of cattle agreed by Mr Major at the June Florence summit could be applied specifically to Northern Ireland, in return for an opening of beef exports from certified, BSE-free herds.

That would incense Scottish farmers, and Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, and provide Labour with a political dividend.

Recognising the Government weakness, Tony Blair attacked "confusion" over Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in Commons questions on 29 October, after a Brussels meeting had prompted conflicting ministerial statements on the selective cull agreed at Florence.

Last month, the Prime Minister told the Labour leader that new scientific evidence, suggesting BSE might be eradicated without the cull, had to be assessed with the EU Commission. In Brussels, Douglas Hogg, Secretary of State for Agriculture, had meanwhile rejected suggestions of a "geographical" or piecemeal regional solution - but that appears to be what is on the agenda for the Cabinet today.

A senior Government source last night said it might be possible to help Ulster's farmers as a means of reopening exports of beef. He said that Brussels was sympathetic to the plight of the Northern Ireland farmers; there was a computerised cattle traceability system in place in the province; and it would only require a selective cull of little more than 1,500 cattle to satisfy the Florence agreement.

That will not wash with the Scottish farmers, who have warned that the Ulster farmers must not be allowed to break loose and steal markets that they have spent years building up in France and Italy.

Labour would also point to another Government U-turn, if only because Mr Major said in the Commons: "We are discussing the impact of the selective cull in the light of the new science." An exception could only be made for Ulster on the basis of a political deal - science would have nothing to do with it.

But any concession made to David Trimble and his nine-strong contingent of Ulster Unionists will also excite speculation about their intentions for keeping the Government going through to the planned 1 May election. The Unionists might be tempted to help Labour score a Government defeat, and precipitate an early election to curry favour with an expected Blair Government.

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