IFA leaves executive pay debacle behind to meet Brexit challenge

Some question whether president Joe Healy forceful enough to drive association’s agenda

IFA president Joe Healy: “The importance of agriculture being treated as a priority [in Brexit talks] can’t be overstated. These are real issues, affecting thousands of livelihoods.”Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

IFA president Joe Healy: “The importance of agriculture being treated as a priority [in Brexit talks] can’t be overstated. These are real issues, affecting thousands of livelihoods.”Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Farming industry representatives are keen to point out there is no upside to Brexit for rural Ireland, not with 50 per cent of Irish agricultural exports dependent on the UK market.

However, for the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), which has emerged from a period of fire-fighting internal scandals, the Brexit challenge, while formidable, is a welcome shift in focus.

The organisation has been able to regroup, rally members behind a common cause, and revert to what it does best, lobbying.

Predictions that its political capital would be damaged in the wake of the pay debacle, which saw former general secretary Pat Smith and president Eddie Downey depart in late 2015, do not seem to have materialised.

In the last month, the IFA has met the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the EU agricultural commissioner, and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. The clout remains but the IFA has not fully drawn a line under its recent troubles.

This week IFA president Joe Healy marks his first full year in charge. The Galway dairy farmer rode a wave of anger among the grassroots into the job, promising to restore credibility and increase transparency around its governance.

“The IFA didn’t just become a bad organisation overnight – there had been a lot of good work done – and the feeling I was getting from members was that they just wanted to get the organisation back to where it was,” Healy says.

Revamp

Under his stewardship, the IFA has revamped how it operates, banishing a culture of secrecy around income and remuneration. It now publishes an annual report, detailing the salaries paid to its top 15 staff.

The latest report shows Healy is to be paid a salary of €98,333, while the IFA’s new director general Damien McDonald will be paid €185,350, in line with the secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, a far cry from the €500,000 afforded the role in the past. Both salaries are now decided by a remuneration committee.

However, a €1.4 million shortfall in income, largely due to members pulling voluntary levies in the wake of the controversies, still has to be made up and a legal wrangle with Smith over his €1 million departure deal remains unresolved.

The IFA’s €20 million annual income comes from a mixture of members’ fees, levies and other business interests. After reviewing the arrangement, the IFA decided against changing it for fear a new fee structure would overburden smaller farmers.

Healy points out that the State’s other big farming bodies, Bord Bia and Teagasc receive €50 million and €120 million respectively in State funding, the implication being IFA members get good bang for their buck.

This notion will be tested by Brexit, which Healy describes as the biggest challenge facing Irish agriculture since the founding of the State. Some 600 IFA members are meeting in Co Kildare on Monday to discuss the matter.

“The importance of agriculture being treated as a priority can’t be overstated. It’s not a case of crying wolf, these are real issues, affecting thousands of livelihoods.”

Healy says he was impressed with Barnier’s grasp of the issues affecting Ireland, noting France’s former agriculture minister brought a highlighted copy of the IFA’s Brexit document to their meeting.

Retaining tariff-free access to the UK market and enforcing a common external tariff on agricultural goods coming into the UK from outside the EU are key priorities. This will not be an easy task given the farm lobby in the UK is weak and Downing Street appears more focused on areas such as car manufacturing and financial services.

“We’ve made it very clear from an agricultural point of view that if the UK leaves the single market the best scenario for us is that the UK remains part of the customs union.”

There is concern that if the UK were allowed to broker its own free trade deals, most obviously with Mercosur, South America’s trading bloc, it could result in a flood of cheap food into the State’s biggest export market. Such a scenario could, in theory, see the IFA pushing for a hard Border with the North.

“It’s important that during the negotiations that it’s made clear to the UK that if close trading links are to be maintained they can’t go off and do their own trade deals with other countries that don’t produce to the same standards.”

Most at risk is beef, Ireland’s single largest agricultural export, as 50 per cent of it, valued at more than €1 billion a year, goes to the UK.

Healy suggests mainland Europe had an interest in keeping this trade intact or else it would face the prospect of having 270,000 tonnes of Irish beef entering the EU market, with price implications for suppliers.

He also moots the idea that Britain’s exit bill could be used to make up the shortfall in the EU’s €56 billion Common Agricultural Policy budget, to which Britain contributes a net amount of about €3 billion.

The lobbying required to push the IFA’s agenda in the midst of such unprecedented change poses a real challenge, not least for a man, who up until last year, had never held a senior post in the organisation.

Questions

One IFA source said Healy had brought stability to the organisation in the wake of the pay controversies and had shown “impressive” knowledge of issues across competing sectors. However, the source questioned whether he had a forceful enough personality to drive the IFA’s agenda.

Healy claims he has already proved himself capable of defending his members’ interests, citing the low-cost loan facility for farmers and the increase in funds for farm schemes announced in the budget.

Another IFA insider said while Healy was not as vocal as some of his predecessors he was more “approachable”. The election of an outsider was a necessity given the hostility to the former regime but, the insider warns, if Healy “gets a bad deal in the farmers’ eyes he’ll walk the plank for it”.

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