The Taoiseach of the day in 1991 Charlie Haughey said that the reopening of the Libyan market for Irish cattle should be “pressed vigorously”. Cattle exports had been banned to Libya since mid-1990.
In a signed letter dated 6 September 1991 to his party colleague and Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerard Collins, Haughey agreed with a proposal from Collins that the foreign affairs minister would meet the Libyan foreign minister in New York during a UN session and for the Irish ambassador to Italy, Robin Fogarty, to pursue “the ban question” during a “planned ‘normal’ visit to Tripoli”. Ireland’s main channel of communication with Libya in the late 1980s and early 1990s was through the Libyan embassy in Rome.
“I need hardly say that the removal of the ban should continue to be pressed vigorously,” Haughey wrote.
A Department of Foreign Affairs document from 1991 stated that Libyan officials were unwilling to assume responsibility for admitting products from countries with BSE infected cattle.
The front page of the Irish Farmers Journal from the week before Haughey wrote to Collins reported that exporters and farmers had urged the Taoiseach himself to go to Libya to save the trade for the back-end of the year. “Haughey must go to Libya,” read the headline.
During the visit to Tripoli, the ambassador was to assure the Libyans of the safety of Irish beef.
The trip to Tripoli
Ambassador Fogarty spent four days in Libya from 6-10 October 1991. In a letter to the Minister for Agriculture Michael O’Kennedy, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Gerard Collins wrote that the ambassador had a number of meetings.
“The most important were the meeting with Mr. Ali Bacci Sawashie, deputy minister of agriculture and the meeting with Mr. Musa Kousa of the Foreign Ministry. The Ambassador describes the latter quoting diplomatic colleagues in Tripoli, as ‘a shadowy but extremely important figure in the Libyan political hierarchy who is very close to [Colonel] Ghaddafi’.”
Minister Collins reported that the “clear message” from the ambassador was that the “main obstacle to the opening up of the Libyan market for our meat exports lies in the veterinary and not in the political field. There is evidence indeed of some goodwill towards us in the political field. But despite the considerable efforts we have made to capitalise on this, it has simply not been enough so far to over-ride the veterinary objections.”
At the time the Libyan director general of veterinary services believed there were “still many unknown factors” regarding BSE.
The letter noted that the ambassador also spoke with the head of the Food and Agriculture’s screw worm eradication programme, Dr Linquist.
“Dr Linquist is convinced that the Libyan ban on imports of cattle and beef from countries which had an incidence of BSE is solely because of a serious concern about the possible spread of the disease to Libya,” Minister Collins wrote.
He also confirmed in the letter that he met with a Libyan foreign affairs minister in New York, a meeting which Haughey had approved of.
The Foreign Affairs minister admitted that the Irish Government sought to get the Libyans to “make a decision at political level to over-rule the veterinary concerns”. However, he then wrote that “it remains doubtful, from our pressure so far if our political pressure, which we will maintain, will in the end be enough to overcome what appears to be a stubbornly persistent obstacle on the veterinary side”.
Following the visit, the Irish Farmers Journal reported that Libya had more confidence in the safety of Irish beef. Séamus Purcell, a prominent live exporter, told the newspaper that week that the reopening of the Libyan trade would boost the price of Friesian bullocks by £100/head. Department of Agriculture cattle prices for the week ending 4 September 1991 showed that a 600kg Friesian bullock would make £634.32/head. The same animal exported to Libya could have fetched £734.32.
Pressure on Government
Earlier in 1991, a document marked confidential and dated 19 July on “relations with Libya” from Ronan Murphy in the Department of Foreign Affairs stated that there would be pressure on Government to resume the cattle trade to Libya.
He said “full cognisance” should be taken on the potential importance of the resumption of the trade.
“With the continued ban in the Iranian market and increased restrictions on intervention, the Department of Agriculture believe that there will be renewed pressure on the Government to do everything possible to have the cattle trade resumed.
“Efforts are being made to satisfy the Libyan authorities regarding their concerns about BSE – whether these concerns are real or not is hard to say.
“The Department of Agriculture say that the pressure on them is likely to be strongest from September onwards when cattle slaughtering is at its highest,” he wrote.
Irish cattle and meat exports to Libya were banned in 1990 due to BSE fears. Live cattle exports in the first six months of 1990 were valued at £20.1m. The market was of a particular interest to Ireland as it accepted a grade of cattle that weren’t sold into intervention. Government documents in 1991 noted that the closure of the market had “obvious adverse consequences” and the Horgan Livestock Company collapsed in part due to the ban.