Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Beef Industry Crisis.

Ray Burke

Question:

2 Mr. R. Burke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the action, if any, he has taken to support the Irish beef trade during the current BSE crisis. [8286/96]

As Minister with responsibility for Ireland's external relations, the Tánaiste is fully conscious of the threat which the current BSE crisis presents to the Irish beef industry and of the need for his Department and our embassies abroad to be to the forefront of the Government's actions to protect markets for Irish beef. At the outset of the current crisis our embassies gave the highest priority to defending the reputation of Irish beef. In this they worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, An Bord Bia and other State agencies with responsibility for external promotion of Irish products. Their objectives were twofold: to ensure continued access to the market and reassure the consumer.

In so-called "third-country" markets outside Europe, some of which had introduced prohibitions on imports of meat and live animals, the emphasis has been on direct contact with governments to reassure them in regard to the high quality of the Irish product and the priority attached to animal health in Ireland. This is particularly relevant in the Middle East and the embassies in Cairo, Riyadh and Teheran have been according the highest priority to restoring confidence in Irish beef. The Tánaiste spoke by telephone to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Velayati, to express Irish concern that existing contracts with Iran be completed and that ships then on route be allowed to unload their cargos.

Prompt and effective interventions by embassies were instrumental in preventing the imposition of restrictions on Irish beef in some important markets and reopening a number of other markets where bans had been introduced. At an early stage of the crisis, ambassadors were able to meet government ministers and other key decision makers. They arranged for senior officials of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to meet their counterparts in the importing countries and brief them on technical aspects of the situation. These meetings were to prove vital in convincing national administrations of the safety of Irish beef and persuading them of the commitment of the Irish Government to the highest standards of animal and public health.

Embassies in the main European markets, working in close co-operation with An Bord Bia, have focused on countering a number of misleading and inaccurate reports which have appeared in the last few weeks in the media. In these cases ambassadors have written to the offending publications clarifying the issues and rebutting any allegations concerning the safety and quality of Irish beef. An official Government statement was distributed through embassies to public authorities and the media at an early stage of the crisis.

Non-meat products derived from cattle, such as dairy products and animal hides, have also been affected by the beef controversy. The Tánaiste availed of the opportunity of the EU Rio Group meeting which he attended in Bolivia last week to meet his Peruvian counterpart to ask for the withdrawal of a ban on dairy imports from Ireland to Peru. This followed diplomatic representations via our embassies in London and Buenos Aires. We were successful in having the ban reversed and the Peruvian market is once again open to Irish dairy produce. Assistance has also been provided to Irish exporters of non-meat products to a number of Far Eastern countries who were encountering some difficulties with local administrations.

The beef sector accounts for about 39 per cent of our £3.5 billion agricultural industry, yet the Tánaiste has been studiously ignoring the crisis and has been unavailable to attend to it although he has been attending to issues in South America and elsewhere.

If a few jobs were threatened in a factory Ministers would be flying back and forth, but there has been no performance by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on this central and crucial industry. There was one phone call by the Minister for Agriculture to his counterpart in Iran, but if ever there was a case for ministerial presence to highlight the safety and quality of our beef and the importance of the industry, this is it. The Tánaiste should have acted on this occasion.

Questions, please.

The Minister for Agriculture acted belatedly. Can the Minister of State give some reason to farmers why the Tánaiste was so lacking in attention to the crisis in the beef industry?

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs is good but he cannot lead a troika to the Middle East whenever Deputy Burke wants him to, nor can he be in every country in the world selling Irish beef.

The protection of the agricultural industry is primarily a matter for the Minister for Agriculture who has been in those countries representing the Government and pursuing this issue. We cannot have our cake and eat it. The Tánaiste cannot be asked to be everywhere at once and then faulted when he is not. He has other priorities and concerns of State to act upon.

Where necessary, the Minister for Agriculture has travelled aboard. At the instigation of the Tánaiste, our embassies abroad have been active in ensuring that Irish interests are protected. The question of a ministerial visit to Iran is under review and detailed technical consultations are under way. It is important to concentrate on their outcome before a decision is taken.

I assure the House that the Government is giving priority to this issue as one of concern not just to farmers but to the commercial interest of the country generally.

As regards the general commercial importance of this issue to the country, it was obviously an area for the co-ordinated efforts of the Tánaiste. As far as the involvement of Kerry men is concerned, I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, who, unlike the Tánaiste, did make an effort to travel. Unfortunately, he travelled to Sweden which was a sort of "wrong way, Deenihan" journey. However, at least one Kerry man in Government made some effort about this, if not the Tánaiste.

Even at this late stage, could the Tánaiste take a leading role in co-ordinating the efforts of our embassies worldwide to tackle this problem?

I assure the House that the Tánaiste has taken such a role. The Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and other Departments are giving this issue priority. The Government has made available all necessary resources to deal with this important issue and will continue to do so.

I will pass Deputy Burke's best wishes to the Tánaiste for his early recovery.