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Irish Fearful of Foot-and-Mouth

March 24, 2001

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) _ Tabloid headlines shouted ``Meltdown″ and ``Farmaggedon,″ and the talk on the streets was of the myriad ways that foot-and-mouth disease threatened Europe’s most buoyant economy.

With a U.S. economic slowdown undercutting high-tech industries, and a strike by high school teachers provoking outrage, ``there is a good deal of bad news coming in all at once,″ said Dan McLaughlin, chief economist at Bank of Ireland.

The government on Friday ordered more soldiers and police to rural County Louth, 50 miles north of Dublin, to seal off the area surrounding Thursday’s confirmed outbreak among sheep on one farm _ the first case in the Republic of Ireland since the crisis began in England last month.

Veterinary experts were confident the measures could contain the disease within Louth, which borders British-linked Northern Ireland, where one case was confirmed March 1.

``This is such a nightmare,″ said Niamh Mahon, dishing out samples of Kerrygold butter in a Dublin supermarket. ``Ireland will need to eat its butter morning, noon and night if the rest of the world stops taking it.″

Now Ireland hopes to reassure foreign nations that its meat and dairy products remained safe to import. Singapore and Hong Kong announced bans on Irish livestock products late Friday.

``We’ve been waiting for something big to stop the Celtic Tiger,″ said construction foreman John Kelly, referring to Ireland’s six-year stretch of breakneck growth. ``Who’d have thought a sheep would savage her?″

On its own, economists say even a widespread foot-and-mouth outbreak wouldn’t put the brakes on Ireland’s economy, which reached double-digit growth last year and was projected to exceed 8 percent this year.

The crisis comes as other pillars of Irish economic success _ wage-restraint pacts, low inflation and America’s own economic boom _ are buckling.

Led by Intel and Dell, the U.S. computer and pharmaceutical firms that have located here announced slowdowns, cutbacks and layoffs in line with the cooling American economy.

High school teachers have been on part-time strike since December and are now threatening crucial college-entrance exams in hopes of winning a 30 percent raise. Parents are furious, students are mounting raucous counter-protests _ with at least 12 arrests nationwide Friday _ but an unyielding Prime Minister Bertie Ahern says a wider wage-restraint agreement with unions is at stake.

That pact is also being undermined by inflation stubbornly over 6 percent.

A wider foot-and-mouth outbreak would most damage agriculture and tourism, which together account for nearly a fifth of Ireland’s gross domestic product.

Ireland exports 90 percent of its food products. Lucrative exports of live cattle and sheep have been stopped, as has all food produced in County Louth.

Tourism Minister Jim McDaid said the industry could expect to lose $200 million to $250 million, or much more if the disease spread.

``We’re not panicking yet, but we’re very concerned at what would happen if they (tourists) start canceling in greater numbers,″ said Aisling McShane, manager of the Dublin branch of Blarney Woollen Mills, retailer of sweaters and glassware which depends on American tourists for at least 70 percent of its business.

The firm’s headquarters shop beside Blarney Castle in southwest Ireland has already felt the foot-and-mouth pinch more, she said _ because the castle has been closed for weeks as part of foot-and-mouth precautions.

``They’ve pretty much made the hiking trails off-limits, which is hugely disappointing,″ said a backpack-toting Dan Snyder, 30, from Boston. ``Looks like I’m mostly going to be hiking over disinfectant mats in Dublin.″

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