Ireland pulls together while the British bicker

'You hear the Government saying it is under control. In the name of God, what planet are they living on?'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some weeks ago I watched a British television news report about the Irish reaction to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. The reporter was standing somewhere near the border and adopting a sceptical tone at the strict security measures being enforced by the southern authorities. Actually sceptical does not accurately describe the reporter's tone. I think snide is closer to the truth. The impression was that the Irish had gone over the top, acting as if foot-and-mouth had already arrived. Why even people's lunch boxes were being pulled apart, and soldiers on the border were causing queues that lasted for miles!

Some weeks ago I watched a British television news report about the Irish reaction to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. The reporter was standing somewhere near the border and adopting a sceptical tone at the strict security measures being enforced by the southern authorities. Actually sceptical does not accurately describe the reporter's tone. I think snide is closer to the truth. The impression was that the Irish had gone over the top, acting as if foot-and-mouth had already arrived. Why even people's lunch boxes were being pulled apart, and soldiers on the border were causing queues that lasted for miles!

To be frank I think I might have fleetingly shared some of the scepticism when I heard an Irish government minister describe the British as "the leper of Europe" because of the UK government's handling of foot-and-mouth. That was surely over the top, a statement plucked from the atavistic mire.

Well now that foot-and-mouth has arrived in Ireland, courtesy of British livestock, I detect a widening mood of national anger in Ireland. My wife has just returned from Ireland on a weekend visit and says people are furious with Britain. But more interesting is the national consensus - a rare thing in Irish politics these days - over how the Republic should respond to the foot-and-mouth crisis. On national radio, the other day, a journalist had the temerity to report from a hillside near the infected farm. The station switchboard was jammed with irate callers protesting that the unfortunate hack was risking ruining the country's economy.

"Its like the blitz over there. The whole country is pulling together," my wife said. On arrival at Shannon airport officials from the Department of Agriculture are on hand to advise travellers on what foods they can and cannot bring into the country. There was a brief moment of panic when my five-year-old's chocolate bars were held up to scrutiny. "Ah, don't take the child's chocolate for St Patrick's Day," one of the officials said.

After that check all travellers were directed to a basin of disinfectant next to the customs channel. The airport arrivals terminal was emblazoned with signs warning about the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

By contrast the Irish visitor arriving at Heathrow would be hard put to spot any hint of an agricultural disaster in the country. This merely confirms the Irish view that Britain has failed its European neighbours by not taking the outbreak seriously enough at the start and then failing to develop a coherent strategy to contain it.

The main editorial in yesterday's Irish Times described "a widely held and less cordial view here that the British government's response to the disease has been shamefully slow and, in the initial stages, bordering on the incompetent". My brother-in-law, who farms cattle in County Clare, would no doubt put it in more pungent terms. He is now waiting that long, painful wait which farmers in Britain have become used to over the past month.

On Irish radio, I heard a teacher in County Louth describe the atmosphere in the classroom when news of the infection broke. "In my 22 years of teaching I have never seen anything like it. It is like a death in the family." He was speaking on the same programme as the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who spoke of the need to take extreme measures. "The greater good demands that we manage this difficult situation even if it means going to extremes... in the long run it's the right thing to do." The Farmers' Journal runs a weekly column detailing sporting and farming events around the country. It normally bulges with notices about countryside activities. This week it contains a single line announcing that all countryside events have been cancelled.

Agriculture is worth £4.1bn to the Irish economy - a fact that helps to explain the strict measures imposed in the Republic from the outset. There is also the damage to the tourist and hospitality industry worth some £3bn a year in foreign exchange earnings and employing 150,000 people. In a country of 3.5 million people these are big figures.

In the village where I've spent every summer of my life, there is a mood of deep depression. The fisheries on the local river have been closed down, so the anglers from Britain and Europe will be staying away. A friend of mine whose work takes him on to farmland has seen thousands of pounds worth of business disappear overnight. All over Ireland small businesses dependent on agriculture and tourism are threatened with bankruptcy. These are often situated in the most beautiful but most impoverished parts of the country, where the roar of the Celtic Tiger has hardly been heard.

As my friend put it: "The way the British government have been dealing with it is crazy. Either it is a major crisis or it's not. And you hear them saying it's under control... in the name of God what planet are they living on?"

The "extreme" reaction in Ireland has been welcomed by the whole population. There is a degree of political unity that contrasts favourably with the bickering mess in Britain. Why is there a national consensus on foot-and-mouth in Ireland? It has a lot to do with a recognition of the economic importance of agriculture in Ireland, but fundamentally it is about how the urban and rural populations of the island view each other.

In Ireland there is still a profound attachment to the notion of land as a symbol of something more than wealth. Despite years of urbanisation the land still occupies a central place in the Irish identity. Most of us have relatives who are involved in agriculture or will have memories of visiting the farms of uncles or grandfathers. Now any discussion of Irish identity can unfortunately be filled with sentimental potholes, but with farming we know there is a living connection between our family heritage and the agricultural economy, between quasi-mystical notions of who we are and the realities of 21st-century economics.

It is what I'd call a typically Irish connection between pragmatism and emotion. We are connected because the powerful hold of land and what it meant for our forefathers is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. Ireland never had an industrial revolution and thus the decanting of rural populations to the towns happened at a much slower pace.

This may change with the relentless progress towards a technified and urbanised society, but for the moment we are able to talk about a national consensus on foot-and-mouth because our farmers are not a marginalised group. The debate is not poisoned by mistrust and bitterness. Though I wouldn't suggest for a moment that there is no urban/rural divide in Ireland, it has simply never taken on either the dimensions or acrimony so frequently exposed in Britain.

And so when Bertie Ahern talks of the whole country "pulling together" there is no collective sneer from the urban élite, or disbelieving sigh from the farming community. If Ireland can keep foot-and-mouth disease confined within the boundaries of the Cooley peninsula, then the country will be entitled to feel both relieved and proud. If it fails, the economic and social consequences will be catastrophic, and the current anger at the British government will have been a mere puff of wind before a force 10 storm.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent

Comments