A `Babe' whose name will be linked forever with pigs

Ned O'Keeffe landed himself rightly in the muck this week, or would that be in the muc? The Minister of State in the Department…

Ned O'Keeffe landed himself rightly in the muck this week, or would that be in the muc? The Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Development, with special responsibility for Food, was reminded all week of that special responsibility for food.

In May 1998, O'Keeffe stated: "The farmer is more and more aware every day of safety and quality. There is no one more conscious of that now than the farming community." Two years on, it could be argued that the public is now very well-informed, and just as aware of potential dangers within the food chain, and as conscious of the need for food safety as those people who produce food.

On Tuesday's Morning Ireland, Richard Downes conducted a Myles na gCopaleen-type interview with O'Keeffe, finally asking him the question, "So, as Junior Minster, you don't have a problem with pigs eating pigs?" At that point, the breakfasting nation probably abandoned what remained of their rashers and sausages.

Ned O'Keeffe, the Fianna Fail TD for Cork East, like many TDs, has concerns beyond the Dail. O'Keeffe has a farm in the Golden Vale, near Mitchelstown, approximately 200 acres in size. As the jolly children's song about venerable farmer Old MacDonald goes, "And on that farm he had. . . some pigs!"

These particular pigs have been the source of much discussion this week. This is because the O'Keeffe porkies have been, ahem, pigging-out on feed featuring meat-and-bone-meal - meal which has been linked to the cause of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). The O'Keeffe piggery is one of the largest in the State, capable of producing some 50,000 animals a year. It is also one of 17 piggeries with a special licence to use this meal.

So, unappetising as it may sound to those of us who used to enjoy the odd fried breakfast, it's not illegal for pigs to be fattening themselves up on their fellow trottered ones. These little piggies will still be going to market. However, once the news broke of the porcine menu down Mitchelstown way, there were calls for O'Keeffe's resignation.

There were two issues in particular which exercised his Dail colleagues. One was the fact that the Department of Agriculture, for which Ned O'Keeffe works, lists the promotion of food safety as one of its objectives. Since 1997, the use of this meat and bone meal in animal feed has been effectively banned for all creatures - except pigs. Some creatures, as George Orwell famously reminded us in Animal Farm, are more equal than others.

The other issue was the fact that O'Keeffe was accused of breaching the Ethic in Public Office Act by not declaring his interest in the family pig farm. Only last week, before the pig-droppings hit the fan, he had voted against a total ban on the feeding of this meat and bone meal to all animals.

When repeatedly pressed this week on Morning Ireland about whether his family pig farm and his stance in the Dail represented a conflict of interest, O'Keeffe admitted to no such thing. One has to wonder if the words "pig-headed" were going through interviewer Richard Downes's mind at the time.

This was not the first time that Ned O'Keeffe and the curly-tailed ones have been in the news. In 1995, he got terribly hot up about a hugely popular movie called Babe, which featured a cute little talking pig. (We're not sure what Babe's diet at the time included to produce this special verbal characteristic.)

There were reports that pork consumption in the US had dropped since the movie's release. The Americans, you see, didn't want to have their movie and eat it. Incidentally, the many pigs who acted Babe were butchered not long after the cameras stopped rolling.

Without having seen the film, Ned issued a press release that caused almost as much merriment among punters as the film itself. The news of the drop in pork products in the US was, he stated, "very worrying and of considerable concern to the pork industry and pig farmers of Ireland. . . I believe that there is a case to be made whereby Irish people should boycott this ridiculous and harmful film and enjoy their ham at Christmas."

FOR quite some time afterwards, Ned O'Keeffe was known to his colleagues as Babe. Many punters will know that the word "babe" also translates into something roughly meaning "grand young lassie". The other thing which the public will recall in the babe line of things is the una" Twink incident, which enlivened the Fine Gael Ardfheis in 1991.

In May of that year, O'Keeffe apologised to Una Claffey, then political correspondent with RTE. He was reported to have had an altercation with her in the Dail bar. Unsurprisingly, this caused considerable embarrassment both for O'Keeffe and his party colleagues.

The opposition did as oppositions do - they made whoppee with the story. The FG Ardfheis later that year featured Twink in a sketch una"which included several decidedly coarse references to the incident. The whole thing was televised, and uproar ensued, bringing Ned's name before us once more. Twink, as we know, is particularly at home in pantomime. Many think it was her finest performance.

It is the fate of some politicians to be eternally welded to particular events. Years might pass, and yet the same stories get trotted out on their little hooves to remind the public of the past events that once entertained us so richly. With Ned "Babe" O'Keeffe, it seems he will be forever linked to pigs.

RTE has just announced the details of its Christmas schedule. The big Christmas Day movie? Yes, it's Babe. Will the television be on in the O'Keeffe household that afternoon? Having eaten his Christmas ham, will Ned then eat his words?

You never know. As the saying goes, pigs might fly.

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