Ice hockey bosses defy 'Fortress Ulster' ban

Precautions
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The Independent Online

The Northern Irish government set out a "Fortress Ulster" policy yesterday designed to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease by dissuading visitors to the province, although only one case of foot-and-mouth, in south Armagh, has been confirmed.

The Northern Irish government set out a "Fortress Ulster" policy yesterday designed to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease by dissuading visitors to the province, although only one case of foot-and-mouth, in south Armagh, has been confirmed.

That was found among a flock of imported sheep from Carlisle. Investigations into other suspect livestock brought into Northern Ireland during the crisis have failed to show signs of the disease.

The Stormont Executive encouraged farmers to avoid sporting, social and cultural events and said English, Scottish and Welsh visitors should cross the water only on essential trips. Irish rugby fans were also urged to cancel plans to travel to Scotland on 7 April to see Ireland play at Murrayfield in the Six Nations tournament as part of wide-ranging measures intended to restrict the effects of the disease.

But despite the safety-first policy championed by the Agriculture Minister, Brid Rodgers, and the First Minister, David Trimble, the organisers of the ice hockey Challenge Cup final between Ayr and Sheffield Steelers at Belfast's 8,000-seat Odyssey Arena scheduled for this Saturday refused to back down. Mrs Rodgers urged the organisers to put their commercial interests aside. She said: "They should recognise that for the Northern Ireland economy the agriculture industry is very, very important, much more important than it is across the water." She signalled she would be prepared to use her powers to ban the game.

Ice hockey's Super League chief executive, Ian Taylor, said 90 per cent of the fans would come from Northern Ireland for the game with only 600 travelling into the province. He said: "The final will go ahead unless the UK government agency tells us it shouldn't. Did Mr Trimble call on Manchester United to call off their match last week? Thousands of fans from Northern Ireland travelled over for that game." Mr Taylor said there had been no suggestion that a concert by the Irish band Westlife at the Odyssey or one by the pop star Craig David the day after the final should be stopped.

Ministers are urging organisers of public events to postpone those likely to attract people from rural areas. The Executive said events in urban areas that did not involve large numbers of people travelling from England, Scotland or Wales could go ahead.

Any long-term restrictions on visitors pose a serious threat to Northern Ireland's recovering holiday industry and the tourist officials were consulting hoteliers about the possible impact.

In Westminster, the Government said the outbreak was causing difficulties for tourism in some areas but visitors were encouraged not to abandon Wales because of the outbreak. The Welsh Economic Development Minister, Michael German, said visitors were welcome as long as they followed restrictions introduced to halt the spread of the disease. Hotels and bars in Cardiff have already felt the effect of the postponement of Wales' Six Nations rugby match against Ireland.

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