Richard North, 10/08/2017  

Ever since I first ran the story in February of the effect of Brexit on the horseracing industry, I have been watching the press (and especially Irish sources) for indications that they have become aware of the issues.

After Booker had followed up, there was a brief flicker of interest in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent and since then, there have been occasional mentions of the potential problems, mainly in respect of tariffs that might apply to exports.

What has been singularly missing, though, has been any reference to the requirement for veterinary inspection at the Irish border, or the absence of facilities. Like our own MPs and media, there seems to be black hole when it comes to border inspections by veterinary officials.

That more or less held until yesterday (apart from an opaque report by Reuters in July) when both the Irish papers mentioned carried stories, as last breaking the news that there was a major problem in the offing.

The trigger was the Dublin Horse Show, which hosted a "Brexit equine forum", leasing to the Irish Times headlining a story with "Brexit poses 'formidable' challenges for Irish equine industry".

With the Irish Independent also running "Post-Brexit border checks on animals at ports 'a nightmare scenario'", we learn from John Melville, superintending veterinary inspector at the Irish Department of Agriculture of the nature of the coming problems.

He refers to the tripartite agreement which currently allows free movement of racehorses between the UK, Ireland and France. Currently, the rules for most EU member states require that horses travel with an inter-community health certificate and also that there is an electronic notification of the movement of the animal from one country to another.

But the tripartite agreement between Ireland, France and the UK means the countries can operate a simpler, alternative system which doesn't require the generation of a health certificate prior to moving an animal.

The agreement is given legitimacy under EU law by having the provisions embodied in a directive but Melville notes that the directive does not make any reference to "third countries". This would mean that the directive could no longer apply to the UK, without it being amended.

The thing is, though, you're not going to get much sense from a vet on EU law, much less an Irish vet. Having spent a significance part of my professional life dealing with MAFF and then Defra vets making a complete Horlicks of EU slaughterhouse legislation, I'd sooner go to the dry cleaners than the veterinary serve for a definitive view.

Says Melville, "If the UK becomes a third country, my fears are that we might end up with the need for a border inspection post in Northern Ireland, at Dublin Port for movements from Holyhead, [and at] Rosslare Port for movements from Fishguard".

Does this man not know that of all the places in Ireland, there is actually an inspection post in Dublin Port? But the thing we really need to pick him up on is his reference to "fears", as if there was going to be an option.

"The thoughts", he says, "of having to equip and staff a border inspection post for the many thousands of horses from the UK is quite a formidable challenge to contemplate". But this, according to the report in the Independent would apply only if the UK did not reach an agreement with the EU and reverted to WTO rules. This, he says, is the "absolute nightmare scenario, the worst possible outcome".

What this man hasn't realised is that this scenario is going to apply to trade between Ireland and the UK, come what may. The 2014 Tripartite Agreement on Racehorses is mandated by Council Directive 2009/156/EC, but it takes effect by derogating EU animal health law – a provision which can only apply to Member States.

On Brexit, this would fall unless a separate agreement was made within the Article 50 framework, but it will need much more than a simple amendment to the Council Directive.

For the UK to resume exports, it must satisfy the conditions set out in Council Directive 90/426/EEC on animal health conditions governing the movement and import from third countries of equidae. The UK must make a formal application to the Commission for authorisation to export, and then must be formally included on the list established by Commission Decision 2004/211/EC.

The specific difficulty for the EU is that if makes concessions on this legislation, some if not all of the "third countries" to which it applies will be asking for similar treatment – especially the United States.

At the moment, says Mr Melville, horses entering any EU member state from a third country, have to enter through a border inspection post. Every week, he adds, a number of horses enter Ireland from the United States and have to undergo a formal procedure at Dublin Airport involving document and identity checks, and sometimes physical checks.

Since there is no example of a third country being exempted from these checks, the chances are that they will be applying from the date when the UK leaves the EU.

At the "Brexit equine forum" there was also Dr Alan Fahey, associate professor of animal breeding at the school of agricultural and food science at UCD. He outlined the economic impact, saying that an update due to be published soon on a study he carried out in 2012 would likely show that the industry was worth in excess of €700 million to the Irish economy.

Fahey says that Brexit would have a disproportionate effect on rural Ireland, where it could be a "disaster". About 60 percent of horses sold at Irish sales were moved to the UK.

"If it's going to be more difficult for UK buyers to bring horses over, or it's more difficult for us to sell horses over there, we are going to reduce our market so then we are going to be left with a glut of horses on this island or in the Republic at least. Demand is going to fall as a result and prices are going to plummet", he added.

But, typically of the breed, he too is in cloud cuckoo land. His view was that, if the sport horse industry and the racing industry got together it would be a "louder voice" at the table representing a €2 billion industry and about 28,000 jobs.

Echoing this unreality as David Carson, the Brexit lead at Deloitte. There is a whole raft of these people charging a fortune for derivative and largely useless advice to industry, relying entirely on the prestige of their employers to command exorbitant fees. And in a classic example of the fatuity of so much of the highly-priced advice given, he says that all industries needed to be "proactive" in engaging with the consequences of Brexit.

"You should be planning for maximum change and you should be planning now, and not wait. Because if you wait, the chances are it will be too late", he then says.

But it is already too late. The Irish government is not equipped to deal with the "absolute nightmare scenario" that is not only about to hit the sport horse and racing industries, but also agriculture and food processing. And even if it started now, and could afford the enormous costs and turmoil that the changes will bring, there is no time to put the infrastructure in place, or to recruit and train the specialist staff.

And, needless to say, the fog of unreality pervades the UK as well. Even though it is the "silly season" and newspapers are struggling for copy, filling their pages with ever more crass report, nothing of this, in the Irish papers, has managed to cross the Irish Sea.

It is not only, or even, the horses that are wearing blinkers – if that is an appropriate analogy. We're facing a bizarre situation where the responsible officials and politicians might just as well we wandering around with their heads in sacks, for all the note they are taking of the coming disaster.

And to emphasise that, we go back to the Reuters report, which cites Jessica Harrington, trainer of champions including Sizing John. She recalls when the border was marked by checkpoints before a 1998 peace deal ended Northern Ireland's sectarian conflict. Racehorses, highly sensitive animals bred for their flight response, would sometimes be stuck in boxes at the frontier for hours.

"If we are going to go back to what it was, it's madness," Harrington told Reuters. She was also concerned for the British land bridge trainers who have traditionally transported their horses to mainland Europe after an overland drive through Britain to save them a lengthy boat journey direct from Ireland.

"Are they going to say that you have to have a sealed horse box? Has anyone thought about these things? Horses can't do that, you can't do that. By law they are only allowed to do so many hours and then they have to rest," she asked, then adding: "We've talked about it in the trainers association and nobody knows. It's now damage limitation more than anything else... No one has a plan".

And that is what is going to be marked on the gravestone of Brexit: "No one has a plan" – the real reason we're looking at an absolute nightmare scenario.

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