Hugh Byrne: It's sad, but Britain has become the leper of Europe

'Mr Brown has been too complacent. He has not so much mishandled the crisis as not handled it at all'
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The Independent Online

I am writing this article from my home in rural County Wexford, in Ireland. All around this part of the world are farmers who regard themselves proudly as the model farmers of Ireland and perhaps even of Europe. When you live here you realise just how precious and fragile such natural resources are. It also gives one an acute understanding of the great importance that agriculture still has in the Irish economy. It is for that reason that I feel so strongly about what has been happening in Britain since the first outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

I am writing this article from my home in rural County Wexford, in Ireland. All around this part of the world are farmers who regard themselves proudly as the model farmers of Ireland and perhaps even of Europe. When you live here you realise just how precious and fragile such natural resources are. It also gives one an acute understanding of the great importance that agriculture still has in the Irish economy. It is for that reason that I feel so strongly about what has been happening in Britain since the first outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

Britain is now the leper of Europe. And by that I mean that, because the country has been infected with the disease, her neighbours feel fearful that they may catch the contagion. That is a very sad state of affairs, but it is one that, I have to say, was almost certainly avoidable. For the response of the British government, and in particular the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Brown, has been far too complacent. He has not so much mishandled the crisis as not handled it at all.

British ministers seem to have been of the opinion that this disease was going to go away - they seem to many people in Ireland to have cared very little about the farmers in Britain and very little about their neighbours like us. It is a scandal. Mr Brown is still letting down neighbouring nations such as Ireland. It is almost as if he has thought that if he closes his eyes and crosses his fingers, the whole nasty business will go away. It will not.

Look at what we have been doing here in Ireland. We have a complete cessation of all sporting fixtures. Anyone who knows Ireland and the Irish will realise what a blow this is. No Gaelic games. No horse racing. Not even any angling! What is more, we have seen local-council meetings cancelled, far fewer people attending mass, and the St Patrick's Day parades that were scheduled for this weekend have been cancelled. Tourism, another vital earner for the Irish economy, is also beginning to be affected.

So this crisis and the stern measures the government has asked the Irish people to co-operate with have made serious inroads on the Irish way of life. But people recognise that this short-term pain will lead to long- term gain. And, remarkably, much of this has been achieved voluntarily, with the Irish people displaying a tremendous sense of community and heeding the advice of the prime minister and other ministers. Polls show that 75 per cent of the Irish public support the government's appeal to voluntary action. I have no doubt at all that, with the right lead from the top, the British people would respond in a similar fashion and the British government could achieve similar things. As it is, policy has been too half-hearted. And here I draw a distinction between policy applied in Ireland, north and south, and in mainland Britain. There has been one case of foot-and-mouth in Northern Ireland and the authorities there have managed to isolate it.

Why could that same level of isolation not have been achieved after the first outbreak in northern England? That is a question to which I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer. Now the disease has spread from northern Scotland to the south-west of England and there is talk of a mass cull of sheep. It is a disaster.

As we look across the Irish Sea, we see sporting events, even race meetings, going on much as usual. A visitor from Asia, say, might conclude that it was Ireland that was suffering badly from the disease, not Britain. That makes us feel that the British government is not treating this with sufficient seriousness, as with some previous agricultural problems like BSE. Britain has a good record in dealing with problems, but unfortunately also in creating them. Mr Brown has to demonstrate leadership.

Sadly, throughout this crisis, I have not been able to put these arguments because we have yet to have any contact. I have not had a single word with Mr Brown. I now hear that he would like to meet me privately. I am perfectly happy to meet him, any time. I believe him to be a decent and honest man. But I would like to think that such an encounter would result in some concrete proposals and a stiffening of resolve on the part of the British ministers and a much greater stress on encouraging cooperation with the British people. I would certainly leave him in no doubt as to the feelings of the Irish people and the importance of farming to the Irish economy and living standards. More importantly, I would try to persuade him and his colleagues that there are some useful lessons about tackling foot-and-mouth to be learned from the Irish experience.

I have said some strong things about British government policy, but they had to be said. I hope that perhaps I will have done some good by pushing along the debate about how to rid ourselves of this terrible plague, something that is, after all, in all our interests.

The author is Minister for Marine and Natural Resources in the Irish Cabinet

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