I carefully discharged my duties, says O'Keeffe

 

The Minister of State for Agriculture, Mr Ned O'Keeffe, insisted that he had "carefully and conscientiously" discharged his ministerial responsibilities.

"The first and central allegation made against me was that my farm was a participant in the quality assurance scheme. That allegation was false, as has been confirmed by Bord Bia and Galtee."

Mr O'Keeffe said he had no "hand, act or part" in the application by Ballylough Milling, of which he was a shareholder, for a licence, adding that it "was above board and fully legal".

However, the Minister of State acknowledged "it would have been better if Ballylough Milling did not avail of its legal right to have a licence. Therefore, no conflict, perceived or otherwise, could have arisen."

He said he had declared his shareholding in Ballylough Milling. "I have also clarified that the enterprise is operated by my son and that I have not been involved in day-to-day operations, although I have from time to time signed company cheques."

He said the licensing function was a day-to-day administrative duty carried out by the Civil Service. "It is not a political function."

Outlining the background to the granting of the licence, Mr O'Keeffe said Ballylough Milling lodged an application in June 1996.

He added that between June 12th and 17th, 1997, the deputy chief veterinary officer indicated he was agreeable to granting the licence, subject to certain conditions. Mr O'Keeffe added: "It should be noted that this decision in principle was taken during the term of office of the previous government."

He said that on July 23rd, 1997, a letter was issued by the Department to his son, Mr Pat O'Keeffe, conveying the decision.

Mr O'Keeffe said he had no involvement in the day-to-day running of his family farm "and I equally accept that it would have been better had this situation been totally clear".

The Minister of State, who was speaking during a debate on a Fine Gael Private Member's Motion on BSE, said he had given full co-operation to the Public Offices Commission. "I have engaged lawyers out of my own pocket and I have instructed them, first, to communicate on my behalf with the commission. If, following the conclusion of an investigation by the POC, violations are proved, I will, at that time, accept my responsibilities."

He said he was writing to the Taoiseach to inform him of the interests of his spouse and children, even where no connection to his public duties had, or could be, established. He had instructed his solicitors to put into a blind trust all his shareholdings, which had been set out in his declaration to the Public Offices Commission.

Although he had resigned all directorships on becoming a Minister, he had remained on a committee of a co-operative, Dairygold, which was not a plc. He was now resigning from the committee.

Mr O'Keeffe said his family's farm complied with all health and food safety standards and intended to apply immediately for the quality assurance scheme and would take steps, if any, that might be necessary to comply with the future enhanced quality assurance schemes.

"Having been an active farmer, I honestly did not consider this minimal activity relating to a family farm as being actively involved in its management.

"Every farmer in the country, and even some journalists, know that there is a lot more to active management of farming than signing cheques or being a debtor.

"And they also know that on a farm it is much harder to separate the personal from the business, unlike a trading company, but perhaps like a family pub or a family legal practice which many deputies will be familiar with. Our farm was run like family businesses up and down the country."

Mr O'Keeffe said the incorporation of meat-and-bone meal into ruminant feed was banned in 1990. "However, its incorporation into non-ruminant feed, that is for pigs and poultry, was allowed subject to strict conditions, which were further strengthened in 1996."

He added that feeding meat-and-bone meal was not considered at one time to be "an underhand, nefarious or even dangerous practice, something to be done in shame, to be hidden from the public".

Now that the situation had changed, he accepted it, adding that he welcomed anything that enhanced consumer confidence in meat products.

"Our farm went a route which was sanctioned by the State. If I am guilty of not ensuring that my family farm did not meet what was considered best practice - which would have required my very active involvement in the farm - then, equally, the State itself is guilty of not requiring best practice by law.

"But we have debated such matters over the years here, and not just in relation to meat-and-bone meal. I think it is fair to say that the State does not take the view of perfection or nothing in relation to standards.

"There are acceptable limits, and a range within these. This has been seen to be the most practical way to go in the absence of perfect information and perfect risk assessment in many areas. My family's farm operated within the then range of acceptable limits and I don't believe that either I, or my family members, should face a hanging offence for doing so.

"It is to be noted that up to last week's ban, Denmark and Holland, two of Europe's biggest pig producers, routinely fed meat-and-bone meal. It was also fed to hens in Holland, which is one of the world's largest producers of eggs."