Department of Agriculture rebukes allegations against SIU

Secretary general calls claims about investigations unit ‘malicious’ and ‘untrue’

One claim about the special investigations unit suggested that a department official overseeing the slaughter of some 4,000 pigs handed a lump hammer to a farmer and told him to finish the job, after the bolt gun failed. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

One claim about the special investigations unit suggested that a department official overseeing the slaughter of some 4,000 pigs handed a lump hammer to a farmer and told him to finish the job, after the bolt gun failed. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Allegations against the Department of Agriculture’s special investigations unit (SIU) have been described as “malicious”, “completely untrue” and “scandalous stuff” by the department’s secretary general Aidan O’Driscoll.

The allegations were made in private to the Dáil’s Committee of Public Accounts by farmers investigated by the SIU, since renamed as the investigations division.

They included a claim that a department official overseeing the slaughter of some 4,000 pigs handed a lump hammer to a farmer and told him to finish the job, after the bolt gun failed.

Asked by Fine Gael TD Paul Connaughton if that happened, Mr O’Driscoll said: “It’s just completely untrue. You were again told an absolute untruth, and lots of them . . . In fact, on the contrary, our staff took a lump hammer off him when he threatened to kill a pig with a lump hammer”.

The case involved the alleged use of an illegal product on the pig farm of Tom Galvin in Waterford 13 years ago.

Mr O’Driscoll said traces of Carbadox, which had been banned in the EU because of its cancer-causing properties, were found in a pig carcass and the department’s officials found several bags of the product on the farm.

Mr Galvin was convicted under animal remedy regulations but appealed it and the department did not defend the appeal.

Mr O’Driscoll said this was because the Supreme Court had decided that the Minister for Agriculture did not have the right to amend regulations “therefore the legal basis on which the conviction had been secured now no longer existed. We couldn’t defend the appeal. But I want to make it very clear that that decision had nothing to do with the substance of the case.”

He said the department had told the farmer to have the pigs destroyed in an approved plant as they must not enter the food chain. Instead, the farmer proposed carrying out the slaughter on the farm using a humane killer.

Mr O’Driscoll said the disposal of the carcasses was supervised by a department official at all times to ensure it did not enter the food chain. About 25 per cent of the slaughtering was overseen by a veterinary official and that slaughtering was done “meticulously”.

Bolt gun failed

However, at some point during the slaughter, the bolt gun failed and a lump hammer was used. A video depicting some of the slaughter emerged 10 years ago.

Asked by Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald about the number of pigs bludgeoned by the hammer, he said it was his understanding that about 10 were killed in this way before the department official supervising the carcass disposal intervened and took the hammer from the farmer.

Mr O’Driscoll said the department would not allow a similar situation to unfold again.

“There’s no doubt that that. There are many aspects of this that we wouldn’t handle the same way,” he said. “If we did allow on-farm slaughter we would supervise the whole thing. ”

Mr O’Driscoll said the Veterinary Council had examined the case and exonerated the veterinary officials involved. An internal review was also conducted in 2005, but Mr Galvin did not co-operate with it.

Fine Gael TD John Deasy said Mr Galvin was very well-regarded in the community “and the feeling locally was that the department treated him poorly”.

He said the department should offer Mr Galvin the opportunity to make his case outside an adversarial setting. Mr O’Driscoll said he would have no objection to the internal report being referred to a steering group and inviting Mr Galvin to make a submission.

The case was among several outlined by seven people in a private meeting with the committee.

“Unfortunately a great deal of the information provided to the committee at that meeting was untrue,” Mr O’Driscoll said. Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald said that if this was the case, then the department officials should have provided a detailed rebuttal of the claims, on a point-by-point basis. Mr O’Driscoll said he would be happy to send those details to the committee.

‘Out of control’

Mr Connaughton said there was a feeling that the SIU was “a group that is out of control . . . they’re answerable to absolutely no one”.

Mr O’Driscoll said no unit within his department was out of control or acted alone.

“There is significantly misleading information given to you about the power of the SIU and how it operates . . . It’s also been suggested to you that they have special powers far beyond what everyone else has. This is completely untrue.”

Mr O’Driscoll said the SIU work represented a very small proportion of the inspections conducted by the department.

“Over the past five years the SIU/Investigations Division conducted some 607 investigations, of which only 58, or less than 10 per cent, actually proceeded to prosecution,” he said. “However where prosecutions were taken, the success rate has been very high – 90 per cent in that period.”

Ms McDonald said the committee had heard of “a very ignorant approach [by the SIU] in respect of different individuals, including pregnant women, a very aggressive approach. Complaints were made about ill-treatment of animals . . . Allegations were made of entry into premises, that was . . . dramatic, forceful, obnoxious.”

Committee chairman John McGuinness said there were too many common strands in the seven cases for them to be ignored. “Please look at what’s going on. They can’t all be telling untruths.”