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?'

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: JAVA DEVELO...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Developer

£475 - £550 per day: Progressive Recruitment: MDAX / Dynamics AX / Microsoft D...

.Net/ C# Developer/ Analyst Programmer - Eciting new Role

£45000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .NET/ C# .Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Fist bumps will never replace the handshake - we're just not cool enough

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on