Since May 2001, I have kept the EU political situation regarding BSE under review to assess whether the climate is right to rekindle our case with the EU. One of the cornerstones of our case is the low incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland. Since May, we have been engaged in a number of surveys of different categories of cattle with the aim of verifying the true incidence of the disease in them. Those surveys are still in the early stages, but the initial results are encouraging. However, it is likely to be a few months before comparative results are available in the rest of the EU. Until they are available, it is unlikely that we will be able to persuade other EU countries of the strength of our case. As I have said on a number of occasions to the Assembly, I remain fully committed to having the export ban in Northern Ireland relaxed, and I will raise the case as soon as the conditions are right.
We often hear that everyone should have equality in Europe, so it seems strange to farmers here, where there is a much lower incidence of BSE than in the Republic of Ireland, Portugal and other EU countries, that Northern Ireland is still not allowed to export beef. Clearly the iron was not struck when it was hot last year, and we do not want to make the same mistake this year. We want to see progress made on this issue, and we want to know what the Minister is doing to make progess.
I thought that I had explained that, but I will reiterate it. As the Member is aware, since I became Minister I have worked hard to get low-incidence status for Northern Ireland. However, I have no control over events in Europe, and events have worked to my disadvantage and to the disadvantage of the industry. Because of the panic in Europe over the incidence of BSE in various European countries some time ago, I was advised by the commissioner, and others in Europe, that it would be better not to press the case at that time. I explained that to the House. At present, since there is a screening operation going on across Europe, there is no possibility of the European Union considering our case until the exact figures and the results of our screening tests are known. That will not be until the end of the year, as it will take six months to do the necessary screening. At that point the other European countries will have finished their screening, and it will then be possible to make a comparison to see where we stand. Those matters are not within my influence to change. As soon as the time is right, and as soon as we have a good case to make, I will be making it.