This time 20 years ago Irish agriculture was on the cusp of a major crisis. On 19 February 2001, a routine inspection at an abattoir in Essex discovered signs of foot-and-mouth disease in 27 pigs. Samples were sent for analysis and returned positive.
I remember so clearly listening to the late Sean MacConnell of The Irish Times describing the significance of this news to Pat Kenny on RTÉ Radio 1. From that moment on for the next three months, my daily routine revolved around reporting the “foot-and-mouth crisis”.
It’s extraordinary to look back now in the context of the current times in which we find ourselves. The peace process was in its early days yet literally within hours of the confirmation of the Essex outbreak, the European Commission slapped a ban on imports of live animals, meat and dairy products from the UK.
A ring of steel was formed around the island of Ireland
That included Northern Ireland (NI), so cross-border movement of these goods were stopped. NI also banned imports from Britain. A ring of steel was formed around the island of Ireland as both departments of agriculture worked together in tracing cross border animal movements.
Extra garda and army patrols were assigned to the border with no questions about political sensitivities. I recall returning from Brussels via Belfast one snowy night in a car load which included then-president of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Tom Parlon and being stopped and quizzed at the border.
The army were assigned to ports and airports
I recorded the interaction of Tom thanking the gardaí for “keeping the country safe” which was broadcast the next morning. There were tales of ham sandwiches being confiscated at these checkpoints.
The army were assigned to ports and airports. The movement of cattle in the state was banned except to meat plants. The zoo was shut as were theatres while meetings were cancelled.
Everywhere we went there were disinfectant mats at building entrances
Ireland’s Six Nations campaign was halted, and the GAA’s national leagues abandoned. In fact, all outdoor sporting activity fell by the wayside. Horse racing took a huge hit with the Cheltenham Festival the biggest casualty. Everywhere we went there were disinfectant mats at building entrances and doorsteps and we were told to stay away from the countryside. Sound familiar?
St Patrick’s Day parades were called off and it took three full months for marts to reopen. Religious services were also hit. The late Joe Walsh was Minister for Agriculture at the time and he told me years after about getting a call at the height of the crisis from a bride on the morning of her wedding to ask him if she should go ahead with her nuptials.
Farmers wept watching their healthy lambs and calves being taken away
Within days of the English outbreak, a case was confirmed in south Armagh. We remained on tender hooks until 22 March when Taoiseach Bertie Ahern confirmed the Republic’s first and only positive case on a farm near Jenkinstown in Co Louth. Reporters dashed to the Cooley Peninsula. Farmers wept watching their healthy lambs and calves being taken away for precautionary culling. Army marksmen were deployed to the mountains to take out wild deer.
For the following 30 days, there were suspect cases here and there but by the end of April, restrictions eased. Ireland had contained the outbreak unlike the UK where four million animals were culled and disposed of on ghastly burning pyres spread out for several months more. It resulted in the cancellation of the National Ploughing Championships here which gives you a sense of the massive destructive and financial impact of the 2001 foot-and-mouth crisis. We thought we would never see the likes of it again!
The text or tweet goes something like this: “Govt is a joke. I’ve followed rules. Like, I was out for my daily walk within 5km today. Hundreds others out walking too. I’m so mad. Lockdown not working.” Think about it!