Yates outlines Cabinet action on beef crisis


THE full impact of what is happening to the Irish beef industry because of BSE could almost be read on the face of the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Yates.

Before Christmas, the Minister had invited the agricultural press corps to join him yesterday for a late Christmas lunch on the fifth floor of his Kildare Street offices.

And what should have been a very pleasant occasion was turned into a kind of wake as the ashen faced Minister from Wexford made his way from a Cabinet meeting to greet his guests.

He said a decision had been taken that the problem of an Egyptian ban on live cattle imports from Ireland and its domino effect - an extension of the Russian ban to other Irish counties - had grown too large for his Department to cope with on its own.

It was now, he said, a Government matter, indeed a priority on which the Government would focus all its attention to ensure that the problems could be resolved.

To that end, he said, a special interdepartmental committee was to be established, comprising the secretaries of the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture, to determine what kind of diplomatic or other action is required.

That committee would decide, he said, whether it would be of value in the current situation for the Taoiseach or other Ministers to meet the Egyptians or the Russians.

He admitted he had known of problems in the Egyptian market from early in December, but had been under the impression that the ban on live cattle was unlikely to be imposed until the beginning of February.

He also said he had received clear indications of an extension to the proposed ban which the Russians placed on three counties on October 11th last.

The extension of the Russian ban, he said, was unacceptable to him. It was impractical and would be resisted.

Nevertheless, he said, a preliminary examination of the proposal by Department officials showed that even in what he termed "a worst case scenario", Irish farmers would still be able to supply 100,000 to 120,000 tonnes of beef to the Russians.

The Minister advised farmers not to panic. He was seeking help from the EU to put a floor price on cattle in the coming weeks by amending intervention rules and acquiring a fixed tonnage of beef from Ireland.

He went on to warn the meat factories that there was no justification for dropping the price of cattle and warned them of their responsibilities to the trade, especially to the vulnerable winter fasteners.

Reaction to the Minister's statement was swift and predictable. A Fianna Fail TD, Mr Hugh Byrne, accused Mr Yates of failing to defend his brief and said both he and the Taoiseach were so preoccupied with EU business that they ignored the beef industry.

The president of the IFA, Mr John Donnelly, warned the Government that his organisation would pursue it relentlessly on cattle prices in this election year. The new restrictions in Russia and Egypt showed that the Government's BSE strategy had failed livestock farmers.

Mr Tom O'Dwyer, chairman of the ICMSA cattle and beef committee, called on the Minister to act immediately to safeguard the markets. He demanded the establishment of an expert group to decide a fair and reasonable price for cattle being presented at factories.

The Green Party MEP, Ms Patricia McKenna, condemned a claim by Mr Gus Fitzpatrick of the Irish Live Exporters' Association that conditions were so good for animals being transported to Egypt that they "think they are going on holiday".

"I don't know what kind of holidays Mr Fitzpatrick takes, but being stranded off Egypt or Libya without adequate food supplies, which happened to 6,000 Irish cattle last year, would not be my idea of fun," she said.

Compassion in World Farming has sought assurances on the welfare of the 5,000 animals which are on their way to Egypt from Ireland.