Dublin may sell Greencore stake

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DEALING in shares in the Irish agribusiness group Greencore was suspended yesterday pending a decision by the Dublin government on whether to sell its remaining 30 per cent stake. US companies are tipped to take up the holding in any early sale.

The Irish cabinet is likely to discuss the matter today, but a government spokesman was uncertain whether this would lead to an early announcement of a sale, which could net Ir pounds 65m ( pounds 68m).

A company spokeswoman said it had asked the Dublin Stock Exchange to halt trading in the shares to prevent a grey marketarising. Speculation about a further sale of state shares has been rife since Bertie Ahern, the Finance Minister, expressed hopes in his budget speech last Wednesday of raising Ir pounds 150m from further sales of state assets.

The company, formerly the state-owned Irish Sugar Company, was floated in May 1991, but the government kept 45 per cent of the equity. Last year another 15 per cent was sold to ease financial pressures on the Exchequer.

But company chiefs including Gerry Murphy, who arrived from Grand Metropolitan in late 1991 to steady the company after a subsidiary was embroiled in an offshore share-dealing scandal, have been unhappy with the uncertainty hanging over the future of the state holding. Directors believe this has depressed the share price.

Brokers expect US agribusiness companies such as Cargill or ADM to be among potential buyers in any early sale. They expect Mr Ahern to seek up to 280p a share, well above the 238p at which the stock was suspended.

Michael Noonan, finance spokesman of the opposition Fine Gael party, noted Greencore's articles of association would have to be changed if a shareholder were to acquire more than 15 per cent.

He said the Irish equity market was 'clapped out', and suggested only an overseas buyer could afford a large holding in Greencore, or the Irish Life insurance group, the other profitable venture in which the state holds a large stake.