Monday, 18th February, RTÉ One, 7.30pm
"People on both sides of the border pulled together. It was as if the country was at war."
Professor Micheál Ó Dochartaigh, UCD
In February 2001, a case of foot and mouth disease was discovered at an abattoir in Essex. This news caused shockwaves across the Britain and Ireland as the aphthovirus found in cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and deer is one of the most contagious animal diseases.
The Irish Government reacted quickly immediately banning the importation of certain animals and food products from Britain and Northern Ireland while additional security forces were assigned to police the border to ensure compliance. The Ministers for Agriculture on both sides of the border, Joe Walsh and Bríd Rodgers, worked in tandem to try and keep this dreaded disease out of the island, which was now spreading rapidly throughout mainland Britain.
'The British Government more or less threatened me and said I didn't have the power to close the ports But legislation in Northern Ireland since the 1960s gave the Government there exceptional powers and a certain autonomy when it came to animal welfare."
Bríd Rodgers, Minister for Agriculture in Northern Ireland at the time.
Social and cultural events were hugely impacted. The IRFU cancelled the Wales-Ireland rugby international, Irish horses were banned from heading across to Cheltenham, the country was awash with disinfectant mats and even Winning Streak contestants were forbidden from travelling to Dublin to take part in the show!
"In Britain, some families had lived in the city for many generations. They'd no idea about country life. They didn't understand how important it was to restrict movement."
Éanna Ní Lamhna, Broadcaster
However, despite the best efforts, on the last day of February a case of foot and mouth was confirmed on a farm in Meigh, South Armagh just Three miles north of the border. The nightmare scenario was now a reality. As sheep were slaughtered and exclusion and surveillance zones were set up around the infected farm, a nation held its breath. An investigation discovered that infected sheep had been smuggled to the farm in Meigh illegally from Britain and were then transported to meat factories in Navan and Roscommon. Three weeks later, an outbreak of foot and mouth was confirmed in a sheep flock on the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth and an aggressive slaughter policy was initiated. In total 50,000 healthy animals were culled on the peninsula, leaving the local farming community devastated.
"When all the sheep left the farm for the factory many people were in tears. Families in this area were very close to their flocks."
Harry Marron, farmer on the Cooley Peninsula
Thankfully, due in large parts to the efforts of the Irish public this was the only outbreak in the South and by the end of April the EU had lifted trade restrictions imposed on the Republic. North of the border Bríd Rodgers and her team managed to contain the disease in a couple of isolated areas and by June things were getting back to normal for the farming community.
The man responsible for bringing the foot and mouth disease to the island was haulier John Walsh. Prosecuted, he pleaded guilty to charges of illegally importing sheep and received 4 concurrent sentences of 3 months imprisonment.
This episode of Scannal looks back at the effect that foot and mouth disease had at the time on the whole country and the devastation and panic it caused among farming and rural communities in partiucular.
Contributors to the programme include Bríd Rodgers who was Minister for Agriculture in Northern Ireland at the time, Éanna Ní Lamhna who stood in for a contestant on Winning Streak, Professor Micheál Ó Dochartaigh from the Veterinary School in UCD, broadcaster Mártan Ó Ciardha and Cooley farmer Harry Marron.
Presenter / Reporter Garry Mac Donncha
Producer / Director Seán Ó Méalóid