Haughey, Gadaffi and the 1980s revival of the live trade

Charles Haughey
Charles Haughey
Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

'You need the live man to keep the dead man alive' - the old saying from the cattle trade sums up the importance for farmers of competition for stock between the processors and shippers.

It simply states that a cattle trade dominated by the 'dead meat' business, or processing sector, lacks the spark that keeps prices buoyant.

This was seen at sales rings last week where battles between exporters, factory buyers and finishers resulted in very fancy prices being paid in marts right around the country.

The revival of the cattle trade over the last three months has been attributed by most farmers to the return of the live shipper.

Farmers have traditionally associated strong exporter activity with improved cattle prices. Which is somewhat ironic, as it was the meat processors who provided the competition to the dominant live exporters in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In the 1950s the export of between 500,000 and 700,000 cattle on the hoof annually accounted for 80pc of agricultural exports and one-third of the country's total export earnings.

England and Scotland were the primary outlets for cattle at the time, with stores making up the bulk of the stock. By 1967 the tide had turned in the favour of beef processing and for the first time the number of cattle slaughtered at home exceeded the number shipped. However, live exports still totalled almost 650,000 head that year.

Demand for Irish cattle in Britain declined significantly through 1970s, although UK buyers still took up to 200,000 head each year.

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But entry into the EEC in 1973 reopened outlets on the Continent, with Italy becoming an increasingly important destination for stock.

An equally lucrative business opened in North Africa, with Irish shippers taking advantage of EEC export refunds to win contracts in Libya and Egypt.

Indeed, by 1981 Ireland was exporting over 250,000 cattle to the region, with Libya taking 144,000 and Egypt 93,000. A further 24,000 head went to Tunisia.

This marked the start of a long association with the Middle East which has been revived of late with the supply of Irish cattle to Turkey, Algeria and Libya.

Exporters such as Purcell Brothers and Horgans supplied the majority of Irish cattle for these government contracts - and such was the importance of the business that Charles Haughey even paid a visit to Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli in 1983 to help finalise an agreement.

The trade eventually went into decline following the BSE crisis of the 1990s and the CAP and GATT reforms which ended export refunds.

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