The move by Larry Goodman’s ABP group to halt the automatic deduction of levies from farmers is viewed by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) as a deliberate attempt to undermine it.
The IFA has been campaigning against the company's planned acquisition of a 50 per cent stake in Slaney Foods, which would give it control of over more than a quarter of the beef processing industry here.
However, these types of divisions are commonplace in the industry, which makes ABP’s stance somewhat difficult to assess.
The company claims its new “opt in” policy on the levy stems from repeated farmers’ requests and is not linked in any way to the Slaney competition approval process.
However, the last line of its letter to farmers – written in bold – stating, “if you do not wish to have the levy deducted, you do not need to take action”, clearly places the onus on farmers to do the leg work if they want to pay.
This is proof, according to IFA sources, of ABP’s desire to sabotage its funding arrangements and ultimately weaken it as a lobby group.
About a third of the IFA's annual €13 million budget is generated by the European Involvement Fund levy, which is automatically deducted from farmers' pay cheques.
The loss of ABP’s portion of the levy – estimated to be in the region of €400,000 – will not seriously injure the IFA’s coffers but a move by other processors to follow suit could have serious repercussions.
Many farmers are said to be unhappy at the IFA’s reliance on processors to collect the levy, claiming it compromises the lobby group’s independence.
At the height of the beef price slump in 2014, the issue of levies was continually raised by disgruntled farmers, who claimed the IFA was taking too soft a line with meat processors.
At the time, the association's then president, Eddie Downey, insisted the levy had no influence on IFA policy, but acknowledged there was a perception to the contrary in some farming circles.
Many predicted the IFA’s pay debacle last year would result in a mass opt-out of the levy system, but this never materialised.
The organisation’s somewhat limp instruction to ABP to stop collecting the levy on its behalf came after the horse had bolted, and it’s not obvious what it achieved.