Labour seeks suspension of Minister


Labour has called for the Minister of State for Agriculture, Mr Ned O'Keeffe, to be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation into allegations about the O'Keeffe family farm.

The party's deputy leader, Mr Brendan Howlin, said that because of the seriousness of the issues and the "total abdication of responsibility" by the Government, the Labour party was calling for his suspension.

He was speaking on a Fine Gael private members' motion on BSE. Fine Gael's agriculture spokesman, Mr Alan Dukes, agreed to the Labour amendment calling for Mr O'Keeffe's suspension, so that there would be a "united front" from the Opposition.

Mr Dukes said that the Government's ability to deal with BSE was seriously compromised by the "many unanswered questions concerning the activities of the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe".

Mr O'Keeffe had serious questions to answer. "First, is he the Edmond O'Keeffe who, according to records in the Companies Office, purchased £1.4 million of animal feedstuffs from Ballylough Milling Ltd in 1999?

" Second, if he is indeed that Edmond O'Keeffe, why did he purchase £1.4 million of feedstuffs if, as he claims, he has no connection with the running of the family's farming businesses?

"Third, what were these feedstuffs used for? Were they fed to animals in the O'Keeffe family farm enterprises? "Fourth, what kind of feedstuffs were they? Did they contain meat-and-bone meal?

"Fifthly, why was payment for these feedstuffs still outstanding to the milling company at the end of the year?"

Mr Dukes said that if his answers were not satisfactory he should resign, or "if he does not voluntarily resign, he should be dismissed". He said that if he was the Edmond O'Keeffe who bought the feedstuffs, "then it seems to me that no conceivable answer that he can give will be satisfactory, since his position demands that he should have no connection whatever with any of the activities of his family farm enterprises". Mr Howlin said he was shocked to read that the Minister with responsibility for overseeing the food sector was "the joint owner of a farm which had been involved in feeding meat-and-bone meal to pigs".

"There might not have been anything illegal about the feeding of meat-and-bone meal to pigs on the O'Keeffe farm, but is it really the sort of example that we want from our Minister for Food, having regard to the level of consumer concern about BSE and the impact of meat-and-bone meal, and having regard to the fact, for instance, that Britain has for several years refused to accept pork or bacon products from pigs fed in this way?"

He added that "according to Minister O'Keeffe's statement on December 4th, an application for the further renewal of the licence is at present with the Department.

"It appears to me that this is simply an indirect way of saying that the application is at present before the Minister himself."

He said it appeared that Mr O'Keeffe had personally exercised his powers and refused applications for bonemeal licences. "Given the very limited number of such licences and that one of them is held by his family farm, an application for the issue of an additional licence must be seen as coming from a person in direct commercial competition."

Mr Howlin suggested that if Mr O'Keeffe had been a Minister in any government other than a Fianna Fail-dominated one, he would also have been out of office more than a week ago.