Galway dairy farmer threatens to upset apple cart in IFA race

Joe Healy leads three-way field ahead of Tuesday’s vote count

IFA National Livestock chairman Henry Burns: two recent polls give Joe Healy a narrow lead for IFA president over Mr Burns, the hierarchy’s preferred candidate. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fewer than 1 per cent of Irish Farmers Association (IFA) members cancelled their subs in the wake of last year's pay debacle – nowhere near the reversal that some had predicted. The backlash against the current administration, however, may be coming in the form of Joe Healy.

The Galway dairy farmer, who has never held a senior post in the IFA, appears to have the edge in the group's presidential election race. Two recent polls give him a narrow lead over IFA National Livestock chairman Henry Burns, the hierarchy's preferred candidate, with rural development boss Flor McCarthy trailing in third.

From the outset, Mr Healy has presented himself as the anti-establishment candidate, untainted by the pay controversies that have convulsed the organisation and sullied its reputation.

At hustings up and down the country, he has voiced the anger of ordinary members still reeling from revelations about former general secretary Pat Smith’s half a million euro salary and the culture of secrecy that surrounded it.


Mr Healy, a former head of farmers group Macra na Feirme, says the organisation needs someone "outside the perceived hierarchy of the IFA with an untarnished reputation". He has offered to take only vouched expenses as pay if elected – although that decision will ultimately be in the hands of the IFA's new remuneration committee.

Significantly, Mr Healy has also hinted at lifting the lid on the pay of Mr Smith’s predecessors, a move the current administration has so far resisted.

Whether he can ride a wave of grassroots dissent all the way to the top of the State’s most formidable lobby group will not be known until tomorrow, when the ballot boxes from all 947 local branches are opened and votes are counted.

With no candidate expected to win on the first count, the outcome may be determined by Mr McCarthy’s transfers. The move to a simple one-member one-vote system, rather than each branch getting a single vote, makes the final outcome difficult to predict, however.

Mr McCarthy is effectively the Munster candidate and the province accounts for 38 per cent of the IFA's 75,000-strong membership. In Mr Healy's favour, Galway is the county with the most branches (78).

Another determining factor is turnout, which is expected to be down between 20 and 40 per cent on last time. One branch in west Cork reported that only 29 of its 129 members had bothered to vote by the close of polls last Thursday.

Irish Farm Centre, the IFA’s Dublin headquarters, blames the low turnout on the time of the year, with lambing, calving and the sowing of crops in full swing. However, several insiders say anger at the current administration has led many to stay away.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times