Irish police seize even lunchboxes at border checks

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The unusual sight of a pile of plastic lunchboxes by the side of a border road tells its own story of just how seriously the Irish Republic is taking the threat of foot-and-mouth.

The unusual sight of a pile of plastic lunchboxes by the side of a border road tells its own story of just how seriously the Irish Republic is taking the threat of foot-and-mouth.

Irish police had collected them from motorists and lorry-drivers travelling south from Northern Ireland into the rRepublic. One woman was amazed when Gardai also insisted on seizing unopened tins of dog food.

The checkpoints are reached after tailbacks in which drivers have waited for up to four hours. "It's a nightmare," a Garda inspector agreed recently. "But it's a national emergency, we need to do it properly." The result has been the imposition of drastic measures. The confiscations are part of a ban on animals and animal products from Britain and Northern Ireland.

Although there have been no confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth in the republic, the prospect of its arrival is regarded with dread. One minister said it would be "catastrophic". Newspapers that wrongly announced that foot-and-mouth had reached the republic were described by Joe Walsh, the Agriculture Minister, as "treasonous".

The new outbreaks in Britain are a big source of anxiety. Since there have been few traces of foot-and-mouth in Northern Ireland, the spread of the disease in Britain is the prime concern. When the Irish look across the Irish Sea and conclude that Britain is not taking its own stern measures, the result is alarm.

In effect, Dublin has come to conclude that Britain is the weakest link in its own defences. This resulted in a Dublin minister declaring at the weekend: "I think it's nothing short of a scandal. I believe myself that Britain have totally mishandled this."

Since agriculture is still one of the mainstays of the republic's economy, there is something close to a national consensus that the strictest of precautions should be taken. Most of the critics of this approach have been arguing not for a relaxation but for even tighter controls.

The Irish government's advice to travellers is terse and blunt. It tells its citizens: "Don't travel to Britain or Northern Ireland unless absolutely necessary." To potential visitors from these areas it says: "Postpone your visit unless absolutely necessary."

Controls on farms and hauliers are stringent. The Agriculture Ministry says its approach is "ultra-precautionary". There have been several outbursts of official and public anger against those involved in smuggling, who are said to have acted recklessly.

Border controls involve not just police and customs but also troops. Official determination has been underlined by visits to the border by the Agriculture Minister, who was accompanied by the Garda Commissioner, Pat Byrne. One border farmer said: "It is like living in a police state."

Elsewhere, restrictions affect almost everyone. Many courts have been adjourned, with personal-injury cases suspended till further notice.

The second biggest political party, Fine Gael, postponed its annual conference.

Catholic masses have been cancelled in some border areas; St Patrick's Day parades, including Dublin's, have been put off; electricity-meter readings in rural areas have been stopped, while most principal sporting events have been called off and activities such as angling and hillwalking are strongly discouraged.

There have been few protests against the severity of the measures, though the tourism industry is now forecasting that it could lose up to £500m in the coming months. With hotels already hard-hit, the Irish economy is counting the cost day by day.

None the less, the fear of foot-and-mouth is so great that the republic is trying to isolate itself from its nearest neighbours for some time.