Shut down special unit now, says farm chief
PAC launch probe into tactics used by the Special Investigative Unit
The controversial Special Investigation Unit (SIU) of the Department of Agriculture is bringing farm families to the brink of despair and should be disbanded immediately, the Irish Farmers Association has demanded.
IFA President Eddie Downey said the SIU should be shut down and replaced.
"They strike fear into ordinary farm families," Mr Downey told the Sunday Independent.
The Dail's powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has confirmed it will now mount its own probe after the Sunday Independent last week revealed that a cattle dealer, John Fleury, who was pursued by the agency for 16 years, had some 160 charges against him and an associated firm dropped in a secret settlement.
The cases against Mr Fleury were based around claims that passports for cattle destined for the Lebanon in 1998 had been altered and that there were irregularities relating to Brucellosis tests. Now Mr Fleury, who always denied all charges, has been vindicated, but the taxpayer will be left to foot the bill for legal costs.
Former Minister Pat Rabbitte, who first voiced concerns about the cases against Mr Fleury in the Dail 11 years ago while he was leader of the Labour party, said the abrupt settlement of the case raised serious disquiet about the SIU, their conduct and the cost to the State. He told the Sunday Independent: "I always felt that John Fleury was a decent and honourable man who was being oppressed unjustifiably. I spoke to him at the time and it was clear he was under massive stress and pressure."
As well as the Fleury case, the PAC will also examine issues surrounding the proceedings involving a Cavan farmer Douglas Fannin.
Mr Fannin was prosecuted for allegedly tampering with a TB test. However, District Judge Leonie Reynolds threw the case out and criticised the SIU "heavy handed" tactics.
Judge Reynolds said Douglas Fannin's integrity was intact, but questioned the integrity of the Department of Agriculture.
PAC chairman John McGuinness has demanded the Department of Agriculture release all details surrounding the case involving John Fleury which is currently subject to a confidentiality clause.
"I've asked for the papers and the costs involved in the case and I'll be pursuing this as a priority to be heard by the Committee in the next few weeks," Mr McGuinness said.
"It is clear that the SIU itself now needs to be investigated. At what stage do these guys stop? How do we know what criteria they are using to go after somebody like John Fleury? How much expense have they exposed the State to?
"This unit cannot be allowed to continue with an open chequebook while it is ruining people's lives - in one case a pregnant woman," the PAC chairman said in a reference to the controversial raid on Mr Fleury's family home in 1999 by six SIU officials and a local garda.
The IFA president this weekend called on the SIU to be shut down altogether.
Mr Downey added: "They have walked over farmers. Remember they are not going into banks or big companies. They are arriving at the farm gate of ordinary decent farm families and shutting them down in an instant. In my view this is being done without proper checks and balances. They have left families in tears and in despair They should be disbanded and replaced. Farmers have no faith in them."
In a statement the Department denied that Mr Fleury had received compensation. "While respecting the confidentiality clause, the Department wants to stress that the settlement was agreed only following an approach by Mr Fleury's legal team seeking a comprehensive settlement to the outstanding legal issues between him and the Department.
"The prosecution of the case was delayed for a considerable period of time over the years, largely due to challenges to the prosecutions initiated by Mr Fleury, some of which were the subject of Supreme Court rulings," the statement said.