What’s China’s beef?

Cantillon: Two years after getting the green light, Ireland still can’t access China’s beef market

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


If you ask the Department of Agriculture why Ireland still doesn’t have access to China’s beef market two years after the formal lifting of the embargo, the standard refrain is: “Chinese bureaucracy.”

Officials say they’ve been diligently working through a byzantine maze of regulations and inspection protocols – which Beijing insists on before trading can start – and that these things take time and Chinese sensitivities have to be handled with care.

High-ranking officials and inspectors from Beijing have visited Ireland several times as part of the process. Only last month, they were given a tour of several meat processing plants here in what the department described as the final hurdle.

However, don’t hold your breath, this process seems to be stuck in treacle despite the fact that Ireland desperately wants access and China seemingly wants our produce. Diplomats used to dealing with China say that when Beijing wants something, the seemingly insurmountable pillars of bureaucracy have a habit of disappearing rather swiftly.

All of which leads to suspicions that perhaps other issues might be stalling the process.

Ireland recently supported a UN motion criticising China over its human rights record, a move that angered Beijing. In the wake of the vote, Chinese officials contacted the Department of Agriculture warning that Ireland’s stance may have consequences for the beef deal.

Ireland also seems to be deepening ties with Tawain, which China lays claim to, and is close to signing a double taxation treaty with the island nation, a situation that might also be exciting Beijing sensitivities.

But these are just shots in the dark. The real reason for China’s slowness in granting Ireland access to the fastest-growing beef market in the world, a move made more urgent by Brexit, may only be known to officials.

As any diplomat will tell you, there are always other things lurking under the table of negotiations.