I thank the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry in his absence for making one emphatic statement during the week at a press conference. He said there is no scientific basis or justification for the selective ban requested by Russia on our beef exports to which he agreed. He stands condemned out of his own mouth. I agree with him that there is no scientific basis. I will produce figures going back to 1989 to underline how unscientific and outrageous the Minister's decision is and how damaging it is and will be for the economy. If the Minister decided to introduce a ban in, for instance, Brittany, he should remember that Brittany, in the northwest of France, is in a different position from Tipperary which is in the heartland of Ireland and surrounded by seven counties. Monaghan and Cork also have contact with other counties; Cork with Limerick, Waterford and Kerry.
In its disease-free status France is not comparable to Ireland. I was Minister for Agriculture for five years, perhaps the longest serving Minister with one exception since the foundation of the State. When BSE broke out in Britain in 1989 I took the most stringent steps of any member state in Europe and any country in the world in relation to the control of BSE to reassure consumers at home and abroad.
I demanded that the International Veterinary Agency in Paris and the Veterinary Committee of the EU meet. I called the meetings and they unanimously endorsed Ireland's actions as being the most positive and effective. We introduced the slaughter policy immediately, which has cost over £14 million since. The then Taoiseach asked me what it would cost. I told him I did not know but that it would cost us much more if we did not do it. The slaughter policy and the ban on the use and importation of meat and bone meal gave us a high standing in the eyes of the world. We set the standard for other countries. Now this Minister has made a craven decision in response to some veterinary officials, not even in response to his political counterpart in Russia, and with this craven surrender he had conceded the basis of disease-free status in Ireland which has been the envy of the world. He has done worse by conceding it on a basis that has no scientific justification.
If one were worried about the number of incidents in Ireland, as external consumers will be, it is worth remembering the outbreak occurred in Britain. We have had 153 cases. Britain, in the same period, has had 165,000 cases. There is no comparison. I pleaded with this Minister to spend time in the last 12 months protecting the image of Irish beef and agriculture. I did so and brought Pavarotti with me to promote Irish beef in Italy. I visited Iran. The Minister is so busy solving the British problem that he forgot he was creating a disaster for us.
There is no analogy between the Irish and British situation but the Minister has now allowed our competitors to point out that the three banned counties have a total cattle population of 2 million, almost one-third of the total cattle population in Ireland. If any competitor wants a stick to beat us with he can use the Minister's decision and say: "Almost one third of our herd is affected. Your Minister declared it. That is far too risky for us to consider allowing importation of Irish beef or livestock". The Minister's words have condemned us.
Is it not extraordinary that of the total cattle population in Ireland, one-third are in those three counties and that marginally over one-third of the incidence of BSE this year and since the 1989 outbreak in Britain occurred in the three counties concerned? The level of outbreak in the three counties is marginally above the level of outbreak throughout the nation. Does the Minister not realise there are people who can attack us with those figures if he is not prepared to vindicate the national position?
If people really want figures to vindicate a case against us they could notice that there seems to be a much higher level of BSE in Wexford, the Minister's native county than in Tipperary, the county of his predecessor. Wexford has had five cases in total, four of them this year. Tipperary has had eight cases in total, four of them this year. One might say Tipperary has had twice as many cases this year though a little less than three quarters as many over the whole period but Tipperary's cattle population is almost three times that of Wexford. The incidence of this disease is much higher in Wexford than Tipperary. I am not making a political appeal to a Wexford Minister, asking him not to be so harsh on us. He stands condemned by his own decision on this nonsense ban. Our competitors will have ample ammunition, as they did in my time, by virtue of the Minister's outrageous actions. If he is making these decisions he should include his own county, which has a higher level of incidence than Tipperary. I am not being parochial as the facts speak for themselves.
My predecessors and I spent a long time with our veterinary services building up the "white country status" for Ireland. We invested much time and effort and Ireland's status was the best in the world. This Minister has thrown it away with one stupid decision. The Minister tells us that the gun was put to his head by some veterinary officials. I have met veterinary officials from Iran, Libya, Egypt and many other places but they would not be allowed to put a gun to my head. I met my counterpart in Iran and he met me here and we sent our officials and vets to talk to theirs andvice versa. However, we are being asked to believe that within five minutes of a veterinary official going back he tells our Minister that he must either agree to this now or else. Even if he had that authority — and I doubt if he did — in the interests of maintaining what we have built up over the years the Minister should have refused to do business on those terms. He should have made it clear that we could not make a concession that is not in accordance with the facts and that would undermine our status elsewhere, be it in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
I do not want to claim special credit but I was recognised as the Minister who did this not just for Ireland but for Europe. My approach is made not for Tipperary or for farmers but for the economy in general. I have never been as concerned as I am on this occasion that a craven, mistaken and unjustifiable decision has done so much damage to the whole country.