Hoof and Mouth Disease and The British-Irish Conflict

James Zogby’s Column

It was the first day of my recent visit to Ireland. As I entered the front door of a newspaper shop in Dublin, the radio was blaring. What I heard startled me. “Keep Ireland free�do not travel to the U.K. or Northern Ireland�do not bring home products from the U.K�.”

There was more to the broadcast, but this was all I heard. In the days that followed, I realized that the message was part of a larger advertisement that played every 30 minutes or so on television and radio and appeared daily in every Irish newspaper.

It was about the dreaded Hoof and Mouth Disease (HMD) that was running rampant in the United Kingdom, and had spread to the North of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland was, of course, alarmed and wanted to warn its citizens to take every precaution to avoid bringing the disease into their state.

What came to intrigue me during my stay, was how this concern over the disease was playing out against the backdrop of the long history of conflict between the British and the Irish.

First, it is important to understand that Hoof and Mouth is a highly contagious virus. It effects cloven-hoofed animals (cows, sheep, deer, etc.). Because it can spread either by contact or by air and because once caught, it is fatal, the disease is dreaded. In the past, when HMD has made an appearance, its impact has been devastating. And so to control it, draconian measures are often used.

This round, HMD was first observed in the U.K. on February 20, 2001. Many Irish are angry and blame the British for what they feel was their lax and cavalier attitude toward controlling the spread of the disease in its early stages. They note, for example, that it was four days before the British took any measures to fight the spread of the disease. And when they did, the steps that were taken were less than stringent. Potentially infected animals continued to be moved, and there were few restrictions placed on travel, large public gatherings or other behaviors that could have contributed to spreading the highly contagious virus.

Ireland, especially after the first reported case in the North, responded in full force and at great cost and inconvenience. In the first two weeks, for example, Irish hotels canceled more than 500 meetings and conferences. Dublin and Galway both canceled their St. Patrick’s Day parades. 600 farms were closed and placed under severe restrictions. Sporting events were canceled (including horse and dog racing, soccer matches and most significantly to the Irish, their match-up against the U.K. in the six nations’ Rugby tourney), and national parks and tourist sites were also closed to the public.

All this was done so as to avoid large movements of people and gatherings where it was feared that the disease might spread. Signs appeared everywhere in Ireland warning people to take precautions, and mats, with disinfectant, were placed in front of most public buildings to inhibit the possibility of the virus spreading by foot.

The costs to the Irish have been enormous. Almost $5 million will be lost on just the cancellation of the rugby match. Tourism losses and the St. Patrick’s Day cancellations will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

And so it was especially irritating for the Irish to see that while they were taking an abundance of precautions to stop the spread of a disease they had not yet caught, the British, whose livestock were being decimated by HMD, continued to operate at a much lower level of alert.

Part of the problem, some Irish speculate may have had to do with the comparative difference in the importance of agriculture in the two countries. In Britain, agribusiness accounts for less than one percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP). Meanwhile, food and agribusiness accounts for about eight percent of the Irish GDP and almost 30 percent of all Irish exports. Others were less analytical, simply observing that the British appeared not to care.

It was when the disease was first observed in the North that the Irish went on full alert and the politics of the British-Irish relationship became truly exacerbated.

The first reported cases of HMD in the North of Ireland occurred in Armagh County. Now Armagh has a special history. It is considered a “bandit county,” reflecting the general state of terrain and lawlessness that exists there. Cross-border smuggling is common between the Republic and Armagh with cigarettes, gasoline and alcohol bringing huge profits. Armagh is also famous for its “sniper at work” road signs, evidence of the strong IRA presence in the county.

It is a fact that many, in the 26 counties of the south (the Republic of Ireland), have lost interest in the politics of conflict over the fate of the six northern counties (Great Britain’s Northern Ireland). They had placed their hopes in the peace process and had become more focused on the booming Irish economy. For them, the future was winning out over the past.

But a stalled peace process and now a dreaded disease that was both on their border, but in reality, also on their small island, brought the conflict back to them in a new way.

The jagged and often mountainous 246-mile border that separates the north from the south is an artificial line, at best. It has, in the past, been impossible to control and stop smuggling and IRA (or more recently “Real” IRA) attacks. How then can the movements of sheep be controlled?

Some Irish initially reacted to the HMD outbreak in Armagh by demanding that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) step up patrols on the border to stop both potential sheep smugglers and/or the errant movement of stray animals. This was, of course, ironic, since the presence of the RUC has often been a hated reminder of the British occupation and repression. In Armagh County, in particular, the RUC was especially problematic. What, in fact, the Irish were seeking now was a transformed role for the RUC, from a military to a police force.

For many Irish, the presence of HMD brought home the unnaturalness and the vulnerability of their divided island. In the end, they realize the current situation is ungovernable and unrealistic. To protect a settler population and its history of privilege, an administrative framework has been erected that makes the resolution of many problems quite cumbersome. If anything, therefore, this crisis has made the continuation of the peace process more urgent, as there are now renewed calls for an “all-Ireland” approach to problem solving-a rational concept that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

It might be interesting to attempt to find the parallels between this current phase in the British-Irish dilemma and future relations between Israelis and Palestinians. But that will have to be a subject for another day.