A formal agreement has been reached with China on lifting its ban on Irish beef, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has announced.
He also confirmed small schools in rural communities would not close “unless a patron and community decide so”.
The beef decision follows last week's re-opening of the US market to Irish beef, after a 17-years EU-wide ban. Ireland is to date the only EU member state permitted to export to the US, following the BSE or "mad cow" controversy of the late 1990s.
With this latest development Ireland becomes the only European country to make the breakthrough in both the United States and China, the world’s biggest individual market, with a population of 1.35 billion.
Speaking at the opening of the two-day Fine Gael national conference in his hometown of Castlebar, Co Mayo, Mr Kenny said that "while China has formally lifted its ban on Irish beef, the next step will require a Chinese veterinary inspection to approve individual processing plants for export.
“Nevertheless, we should take pride in the fact that Ireland is the only European country to make this significant breakthrough in both the US and Chinese markets.”
Since taking office the Government has continued the State’s assiduous wooing of the Chinese leadership and President Xi Jingping visited Ireland in 2012. Mr Kenny said that at the time he had the opportunity to discuss the “outstanding quality of Irish food”.
And to applause from delegates he said “it was significant that he chose to visit an Irish farm in the west of Ireland during that historic trip”.
This latest breakthrough follows access gained over a year ago to the Japanese market and the Taoiseach said “it is a massive endorsement of Ireland’s agricultural sector, our farmers, and the food they produce”.
Paying tribute to party colleague and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney, Mr Kenny also praised the Irish agriculture sector for "achieving so much so quickly".
Mr Kenny said Ireland needed to “take advantage of our strong position” and with the approach of the St Patrick’s week festival, the Taoiseach and “other Government Ministers, will be intensively promoting Irish food and drink in these new markets as part of the St. Patrick’s Day global celebrations”.
In a speech on the theme “Securing Rural Recovery”, Mr Kenny also insisted that “no small schools will close” under Government measures, “unless a patron and community decide so”.
He said Fine Gael firmly believed “small schools play a key role in the social fabric of rural communities especially in isolated locations, and importantly offer parental choice in the education of our children”.
Teacher pupil ratios had been dropped and “by improving teacher retention threshold the Government is helping sustain small schools in the future”.
Up to 1,000 people are expected to attend the national conference in Castlebar.
The Garda presence was low key last night but a water charges protest is expected to descend on the TF Royal convention centre.
Arranged by Right2Water, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit, the organisers claim 1,000 will attend the protest.
No debate on Irish Water or the charges is expected but sessions will be held on the Marriage Equality referendum, on the health service and on the plans for the 2016 commemorations of the Easter Rising. The controversial social welfare reforms will be part of the discussion on “Making Work Pay”.
Education, mental health and a “crackdown on crime” will also be debated. The Taoiseach will make his keynote address on Saturday at 8.30pm which will be broadcast live on RTÉ.