Everybody in this House knows agriculture is at the heart of much of the social, cultural and economic life of our country. As a result of that, we must always treat very seriously every possible threat to its vitality. That is the approach of this Government and has been the approach of all previous Governments. It is only very recently we discussed the unprecedented measures we had to introduce to address the BSE issue. We thought at that stage we knew what was a serious crisis in agriculture and food.
However, for the past ten days we have been addressing a crisis that carries with it a "once in a generation" threat. The potential impact of foot and mouth disease on our agriculture and food industries would be on a scale few of us could imagine. This unprecedented threat has required unprecedented action, and that is what has been taken.
From the first moment we were alerted to the risk of foot and mouth disease, we have taken aggressive action to establish if it is here and to keep it out if it is not. We have worked on the basis of a number of simple principles: provide every resource required; take every action necessary; and respond quickly.
Over the past week, I and the key Ministers involved have received regular briefings on all emerging concerns. Daily action meetings have been held from the time of the first notification of threat of the disease. Officials of my Department have been fully involved. The Cabinet has discussed the issue on a number of occasions, including two specially convened meetings. In addition, daily cross agency meetings are being held, chaired by me or the Minister for Agri culture, Food and Rural Development and with appropriate Ministers and officials present. This crisis has had my full attention and that of the entire Cabinet at all stages.
In each of the key moves taken over the past ten days, action here has preceded that in other countries. As we are all aware, the EU imposed a ban on exports from the UK with effect from 21 February, but we had already acted to prevent imports to the country of susceptible animals and relevant products. The ban on imports has since been extended to horses and greyhounds from Britain.
Arrangements were made with the Garda and the Army to send the necessary forces to the Border immediately and Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development staff at entry points to the country were put on alert. Prior to confirmation of the outbreak in Northern Ireland, these measures were strengthened and a massive security operation was put in place.
There are now more than 750 gardaí on Border duty and almost 200 gardaí are working on this issue at ports and airports. In addition to the 200 Army personnel who have already moved to the Border, the Minister for Defence has arranged that all necessary permanent and part-time members of the Defence Forces will be made available.
While the complete sealing of 253 miles of the Border is obviously not possible, the advice of the Garda is that coverage is required on 141 roads to effectively monitor all cross Border traffic. The security authorities have confirmed to me that each of these 141 roads is being manned.
We have monitored all imports of sheep from Britain from three weeks before its first confirmed case. I will return to recent developments later. Even though the tests undertaken have been negative so far, reasonable caution requires that these animals should be slaughtered. This is being done. France, Germany and Spain are also engaging in such slaughtering programmes.
A nation-wide ban on livestock marts has been implemented and on Wednesday last a ban was introduced on the movement of all relevant livestock within the country other than those going directly to slaughter. Arrangements were put in place to ensure that people and vehicles were disinfected and these are being enhanced on an ongoing basis.
At a special Cabinet meeting last night, a number of additional measures were agreed: every public office has been instructed to install a disinfectant system; all avoidable farm visits by State agencies are to be cancelled; all non-essential gatherings of large groups of people are to be cancelled; and from next week postal deliveries will be made only to farms where there is a disinfectant mat.
A widespread information campaign has been undertaken through the media and through direct contact with farmers, industry and other interested groups and individuals. I acknowledge the essential help of various parts of the media in distributing important factual information to the public. Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development staff have manned help lines throughout the week and Department offices will remain open through this coming weekend to provide advice.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development is distributing advice leaflets to farmers throughout the country and this information is being made available to the widest possible number of people and organisations. Teagasc is also assisting by making advice available to farmers.
The House should be aware of the huge logistical task undertaken by the various agencies involved. We have had no direct experience of this disease over the past six decades, nor have we been threatened directly with it for more than three decades. In spite of this, a wide range of agencies have reacted swiftly and on a major scale and we have reacted as if the disease was already present. Comparison has been made with the threat in 1967. I have been informed that the current controls surpass those in place at that time in regard to their scale and speed of implementation.
More than 1,000 security personnel have been active in enforcing measures in the Border region alone. I pay tribute to the two gardaí who were injured in the course of carrying out their duties on this matter and wish them well.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has applied every available person who could be pulled from tasks to help with the effort. This has involved up to 800 people. For a Department which was already handling an emergency scheme, its response has been very impressive. I pay tribute to everybody in the Department who is involved. I and my colleagues very much appreciate their professionalism and commitment.
The control of livestock movements is obviously the most important element of the effort and it addresses the most significant potential cause of infection. However, we have been very conscious of the fact that there are many other ways in which the infection could spread. As a result of this, many other measures have been required which have inconvenienced, and will severely inconvenience, large numbers of people.
The various Irish sporting organisations, which responded to discussions with Ministers by cancelling or postponing events, have acted in an extremely responsible manner. Indeed, they have shown a lead to sporting organisations in other countries. Yesterday's decision by the Racehorse Trainers Association regarding Cheltenham was also the responsible decision to make.
Reference has been made to the movement of animals around the country and the role of dealers. There are controls on movement and, in particular, there is legislation in place to regulate dealers. This legislation is in the process of being updated, but we need to revisit this aspect in the light of recent developments. We will continue to do whatever needs to be done in this context.
The State services will continue to provide advice and information to farmers and others to ensure the most effective action possible by everyone. Anyone who is in doubt about any issue, and especially anyone who has any concerns or suspicions about the movement or health of animals, should contact their local Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development office immediately. There is absolutely no room for complacency or misplaced local or family loyalties in this matter.
It is also important for me to say that, as great as the threat from this disease is, it has no serious implications for human health. With all the attention understandably focusing on this issue, some people may harbour concerns on this matter. I am advised that very occasionally people can get mild respiratory symptoms from contact with infected animals but people cannot become infected by eating meat from such animals.
We must all make a few things very clear. As of now, there have been no confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in this jurisdiction and there have been no cases with the clinical signs of foot and mouth disease identified in this jurisdiction. Similarly, we have no evidence available to us of movements of animals in breach of the controls we introduced on 21 February.
A movement of sheep on to a farm in County Louth is currently under investigation. Last night the authorities here became aware of this movement of sheep from Northern Ireland and, therefore, the full details are not yet available. As in the other cases of post 1 February movements from Great Britain or Northern Ireland, gardaí and departmental officials moved on to the farm during the night and a number of sheep have been slaughtered. A meat plant in County Kildare which may have received sheep from the farm has been closed. Every possible action and precaution will be taken in this case.
Clearly the introduction of the Single Market increased the possibility of movement and the risk of disease. The Single Market is one thing, but racketeering and illegal movement are a different issue. The situation is complicated by the fact that there has always been free movement of sheep between ourselves and Northern Ireland. As such, movement of sheep prior to the introduction of controls cannot, of itself, be viewed as suspicious.
Since details of the Athleague case emerged, it has not always been emphasised by commentators that the illegal importation took place on the day before the introduction of our control measures. I discussed the matter of such illegal importations with the Garda and officials of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and they stressed that they treat these cases as fraud and organised crime and that they work to deal firmly with those involved on an ongoing basis. I appeal to members of the pub lic to report to the authorities any similarly suspicious movements of animals and I assure them that these reports will be dealt with on a confidential basis. Huge efforts are being made by people all over the country to fight the threat of this disease, and actions that undermine this will not be tolerated.
One lesson which we should take from the past two days, and from the evidence to date, is that we must be very careful that we do not talk ourselves into an immediate problem with our trading partners. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and our diplomats throughout the world have been working energetically to ensure that other countries know that there have been no confirmed cases in this jurisdiction. There are few things which could be more unhelpful to their work, and more dangerous to this trade and the livelihoods of those who depend on it, than careless descriptions of the facts to date. Everybody should realise that we live in a highly competitive environment. The world is paying attention and we must all act responsibly.
For all of us in this House, we must continue to work on a non-partisan basis, and I thank the House for having done so. We cannot use such a serious matter as material for the everyday cut and thrust of adversarial politics.
I thank Deputy Noonan for the position he adopted here yesterday on my address to the Welsh Assembly. For many years the people of Wales have sought a form of self-governance – it is something they cherish and their pride in the Assembly was very evident yesterday on their national day. The visit allowed me the opportunity to discuss in detail the outbreak of foot and mouth disease with the Welsh Agriculture Secretary, following from my discussions with Prime Minister Blair the previous evening.
The Minister, Deputy Walsh, and the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, have been in the House for four days in a row, for a total of eight hours' debate and questions on this issue. They and their officials have worked incredibly hard to keep the House informed of developments and to respond to points raised by Deputies. They have all been under considerable pressure to carry out the many functions of proposing measures, overseeing an unprecedented control and monitoring exercise, disseminating public information and servicing the needs of the Oireachtas. I appreciate their work very much.
As I have said, the Government has been striving to put in place stringent and effective controls. At most stages of the process, we have implemented restrictions before Britain, which actually has confirmed cases, or other European countries. We see this as an emergency and have been acting accordingly, but no one can let their guard down. Any extra measures which may be required will be implemented and any extra resources which may be required will be provided.
I appeal again to people to heed the advice being given by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. I stress that this is advice aimed at everyone, not only farmers. We can all contribute to the fight against this disease by doing nothing which could increase the threat of infection.
The extent and nature of the actions which we have implemented are fully justified by the importance of the agri-food industry to this country. The agri-food sector accounts for 10% of GDP, 11% of employment and 27% of net earnings from trade. Far more importantly, however, farming and food are the bedrock of our rural communities. Anything that threatens that industry, as foot and mouth disease does, is a threat to a large section of Irish society – it threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of families who earn their living either directly or indirectly from farming and the food industry. For this reason we must continue to address this threat with absolute determination and vigilance.
I thank the public for their co-operation and forbearance and ask them to continue to co-operate with the extra precautions. This is a national emergency with livelihoods and prosperity at stake for many people and, by extension, for the whole country.