As I listened to the news of the foot and mouth virus as it spread across Britain, sneaking into Ireland and other parts of Europe, my thoughts focused on how the fungal spores stretched out mist-borne fingers to rot potatoes in the ground during the Irish Famine years in the 1840s.
It was not great movements of people or animals which spread that infestation but rather the other way round causing wholesale dramatic uprooting of communities whose lives were centred on the potato crop for their sustenance, recorded graphically in the history of emigration to Wales, the UK generally, the Americas and the Antipodes.
The dispersion of that fungus, its cause and means of prevention was at that time as baffling and unpredictable as the foot and mouth virus is today.
During the Irish Famine years many died in their cabins, unknown. In this animal disease the victims, the cows, sheep, pigs and goats, though destined to be slaughtered for food, are being prematurely culled and not eaten but buried or burned en masse.
The farmers, however, will have their losses underwritten by the state to some extent, some of them expressing pain about what is happening to their stock and themselves, and may decide to migrate from the land under economic pressure. It will not be so traumatic or devastating, though similar in some respects, to the experience of landless peasants in mid-nineteenth century Ireland.
Just as those events changed the agricultural and social configurations of those times, British, Irish and European rural policies, including the farming sector, will have to seriously examine how they function and how they should restructure.
Although as yet the virus contained within specific areas in Ireland, and meat exports from Northern Ireland are now derestricted, there is a sense that there is a common enemy which both jurisdictions can cooperate to defeat. This should give First Minister Trimble pause and cause to reconsider the ban on Sinn Féin ministers participating in cross border meetings.
The problem is not just one of animal health but extends into tourism with economic dangers for Northern and Southern administrations. Working together to prevent, contain and eradicate the virus could help to consolidate cooperation and understanding.
Asked a question as to what were the most difficult issues he had to face the former British Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan (now deceased) replied, “Events, dear boy, events”.
Tony Blair, contemplating the situation in the weekend of 31 March – April 1 and the date of the general election may have dwelt on a quote from Robbie Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley”.
He may also have thought of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy (slightly altered by me), “To go or not to go, that is the question, whether tis nobler in the mind to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them”.
Well, events like tumbling asteroids and obsolete satellites falling to earth are whirling around, foot and mouth, the USA teetering on the edge of recession and a new isolationism, led by Texas Ranger Bush (unless America’s interests are involved), the need to strengthen the European Union as a balancing force to this, new dangers in the Balkans, the Palestine - Israeli conflict and, not least, the approaching deadline for arms decommissioning in Northern Ireland, in June.
By and large the critical nature of the foot and mouth outbreak and the media focus upon it has obscured the continuing stalemate in fully implementing the Belfast Agreement.
There are disturbing reports of isolated violence, arson and the appearance on the internet of a Loyalist information website, giving the names and addresses of prominent Nationalists, arousing fears of sectarian assassination attempts.
On the other hand there are said to be 8000 new applications to join the reformed Police Service. The Chief Constable expressed confidence that an increase in the numbers of officers from the minority population will be possible.
As Easter, the fourth since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (10/4/98) three years ago Drumcree is expected to hit the headlines again as the parade down the Garvaghy Road is still banned and the Orange Lodge still has not agreed to meet the residents. Perhaps the fear of the foot and mouth virus will put a damper on it unless a cure is found for the human form which seems to afflict the fundamentalists.
So it seems that we must still wait for ‘votey’, now expected to arrive on June 7th instead of the earlier date of May 3rd. When the arrival takes place it is imperative that a government, firmly dedicated to the Peace Process, is elected with a substantial majority.
One way of ensuring this and give a fillip also to the supporters of the Belfast Agreement in the Assembly would be a more positive outcome in the discussions on decommissioning with General De Chastelain.
This would be welcomed by both governments and the British Prime Ministers who played such a significant role in the formulation of the Good Friday Agreement could perhaps receive some electoral credit for the historic compromise.