Farming investigations unit created to replace unpopular predecessor

New division replaced Special Investigations Unit which was criticised by farmer representative groups

The investigations division of the Department of Agriculture, whose numbers have been substantially reduced from six to three personnel, came into being in October 2014.

Then minister for agriculture Simon Coveney said the decision to create a new division was made following a review of "the governance structure around the conduct of all investigations by my department".

The division effectively replaced the Specialist Investigations Unit (SIU) which had been deeply unpopular among farming representative groups.

The new arrangement brought all investigations capability, both internal and external, into one division headed by a Senior Superintending Veterinary Officer, supported by a core team of investigators drawing on others in the department with specialist expertise, he said.

Mr Coveney said that in altering the inspection capability, he was “enhancing our capacity to protect Ireland’s international reputation whilst also providing for enhanced governance arrangements in respect of when and how investigations are carried out”.

The division’s predecessor the SIU had been set up in 1984 to tackle the illegal use of grown promoters, initially hormones but then Angel Dust or clenbuterol, which threatened the reputation of Irish beef exports.

The SIU achieved this with a number of high profile investigations and successful prosecutions and it began to broaden its remit to investigate various scams including one where farmers deliberately introduced BSE-infected animals into herds to claim compensation.

One such investigation into a BSE scam, where the SIU were assisted by the Garda, resulted in a Clonakilty farmer, James Sutton being jailed in 2000 for five years while a cattle dealer, Bryan Wilson from Bandon, was jailed for a year and his son, Andrew received a two years suspended term.

Over the years, the SIU, which had 15 investigators at its height, began to further broaden its remit across the beef, sheep, pig and equine sectors, looking, for example, into cattle smuggling scams by farmers as well as investigations into vets and pharmacists who prescribed medicines illegally.

The late judge AG Murphy highlighted the importance of the SIU in a case of cattle smuggling at Cork Circuit Criminal Court in 2001, saying they were doing critically important work to stop a small number besmirching the name of Irish farming.

But the SIU's robust approach to investigations was not without controversy and the unit did not endear itself to farmer representative groups with the IFA being quick to welcome its dissolution in October 2014 when it was replaced by the Investigations Division.

No faith

Then IFA President, Eddie Downey said that farmers had no faith in the SIU and the move by Minister Coveney was welcome and necessary to restore the credibility of the Department of Agriculture's investigative oversight among farm families and the wider agricultural community.

“It (setting up the Investigations Division) recognises the concerns IFA has repeatedly expressed about the unit (SIU) since I took over as President. The move also reflects the deep unease among farm families about the activities of the SIU,” said Mr Downey.

Although it had been stood down in October 2014, the SIU came under the spotlight at a Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearing in June 2015 when the department’s secretary general Aidan O’Driscoll was forced to defend the SIU’s reputation against “malicious” allegations.

In one case, it was alleged that a department official, investigating the use of illegal products and overseeing the slaughter of 4,000 pigs on a pig farm in Co Waterford in 2002, handed a lump hammer to a farmer and told him to finish the job after a bolt gun or humane killer failed.

Mr O'Driscoll roundly dismissed the allegation saying it was "completely untrue" and told Fine Gael TD Paul Connaughton that he had been told "an absolute untruth" and that, in fact, department staff took a lump hammer off the farmer when he threatened to kill a pig with the hammer.

Feeling

Mr Connaughton told the committee that there was a feeling that the SIU was “a group that is out of control... they’re answerable to absolutely no one” but this was strongly denied by Mr O’Driscoll who said no unit in 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 has been suggested to you that they have special powers far beyond what everyone else has. This is completely untrue.”

He revealed that over the preceding five years, 2010 to 2015, the SIU/Investigations Division had conducted 607 investigations of which only 58 or less than 10 per cent had proceeded to prosecution but where prosecutions were undertaken, over 90 per cent had resulted in convictions.

That pattern of taking only a small number prosecutions but securing a high number of convictions has continued with the department revealing to The Irish Times this week that 39 prosecutions were brought between 2016 and 2019 inclusive, with 37 of these resulting in convictions.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times

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