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8 March 2001 Edition

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Farmers accuse Fee of foot in mouth

SDLP Assembly member John Fee was forced to do a hasty about turn on Monday when remarks he made trying to link ``erstwhile republicans'' to the current Foot and Mouth crisis backfired badly.

The South Armagh Framers and Residents Committee issued a strongly worded statement attacking Fee's comments, sentiments echoed by Sinn Féin.

``John Fee has clearly jumped with both feet into his own mouth following his unfounded and unwarranted allegations against the people of South Armagh and in particular the farming community regarding the issue of the Foot & Mouth disease that has been located in the area,'' the group said.

During several live radio interviews John Fee stated: ``There are individuals in the south Armagh area who are actively hampering the agriculture ministry and police operations to seal off the containment area.'' Not surprisingly, both Danny Kennedy and Ian Paisley welcomed Fee's statement.

However, when Brid Rodgers, the Minister for Agriculture and a party colleague of Fee's, was asked if she was aware of any intimidation, she replied ``absolutely not''. In addition, when her southern counterpart, Joe Walsh was asked about Fee's allegations that cross-border smuggling was contributing to problems in efforts to control the disease, Walsh responded: ``There is no evidence whatsoever of any illegal importation of livestock into the southern jurisdiction, not at all.''

The SAFRC reported that to their knowledge, John Fee had not visited the Meigh area and had no right to issue such a scurrilous and damaging statement to the media. There was agreement, said the SAFRC, that John Fee was using the issue as a political football.

Fee's accusations were unsurprisingly echoed by the DUP. On Tuesday, the DUP's Willie McCrea engaged in a verbal sparring match with a 26-County Department of Agriculture civil servant. The civil servant was irate at accusations from McCrea that southern authorities were covering up incidences of Foot and Mouth.

Sinn Féin Ard Fheis postponed

Sinn Féin has decided to postpone its Ard Fheis, due to be held in Dublin this Saturday and Sunday 10&11 March. Announcing the decision, Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said it was taken in the context of the current foot and mouth emergency as a precautionary measure in order to prevent any risk which might be presented by the gathering of a large number of delegates from all parts of the country.

Instead, the party will hold a half-day conference for members from Dublin and a very limited number of Ard Chomhairle members in the Davenport Hotel on Saturday, 10 March. There will be a keynote address by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

Speaking at a press conference in Dublin also addressed by party chair Mitchel McLaughlin, Ó Caoláin said: ``As soon as it was confirmed that the outbreak in Britain had spread to Ireland we placed our Ard Fheis under review. We consulted with the Department of Agriculture and Food and with our own membership. As a responsible party we had no hesitation in cancelling this weekend's Sinn Féin Ard Fheis both as a precaution and to send out a further clear signal about the seriousness of the potential damage to our agricultural industry and to the economy generally.''

Ó Caoláin reiterated his call for people to be vigilant and to co-operate with the measures being taken to prevent the spread of this disease. ``Farming families, rural communities and the wider economy will undoubtedly suffer severely if the outbreak is not contained,'' he said. He continued:

``It is quite clear now that the initial response from the Irish government was sluggish. There was no emergency plan in place and, initially at least, government efforts were badly co-ordinated. People have had difficulty obtaining the appropriate disinfectants and high prices have been charged by unscrupulous suppliers. I call on the Minister for Agriculture and Food to make these products freely available at distribution centres throughout the country.

``This Border deputy can state without fear of contradiction that the so-called ring of steel around the border is more illusion than reality. For example many busy roads have not had the required disinfectant mat facilities and many of these are of inadequate size to address the problem.

``It needs to be said that if we had a coherent and coordinated All-Ireland approach to agriculture, including monitoring and enforcement of stricter regulations regarding animal health, movement of animals and standards in the production and distribution of food, then the Border, which is impossible to seal, would be irrelevant as far as this disease is concerned.''

The Cavan/Monaghan TD stated that the outbreak has highlighted major structural problems in Irish and EU agriculture. He said ``lessons which should be learned and action taken'', calling on the Dublin government to work to see the EU-wide banning of speculative dealing in large numbers of farm animals who are moved over long distances to capitalise on price differentials. ``Such activity benefits only the speculator, spreads disease and is bad for animal health and food safety.''

``The current emergency shows the need for a policy where the quality and the safety of food are primary, regardless of the cost implications.''


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