IFA code of omerta evident in wake of Pat Smith departure
Former Irish Farmers’ Association boss received salary package of €535,000 in 2013
Pat Smith was forced to resign because of the controversy over his remuneration. Photograph: Eric Luke/Irish Times
One insider described it as a “code of omerta” across the entire upper echelon of the organisation.
Another said the controversy was merely a smokescreen to oust Pat Smith, the group’s general secretary and de facto boss, who was described as “abrasive”.
Either way, the issue of Mr Smith’s pay, now confirmed as €535,000 in 2013 and €445,000 last year, has engulfed the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in the worst crisis of its 60-year history.
Questions about his leadership had been smouldering for months. His detractors claim he was too commercially focused and had failed to take decisive action in the face of collapsing commodity prices.
Earlier this year, he fought off a no-confidence vote, brought jointly by county executives in Carlow, Laois and Kildare.
President Eddie Downey, public face of the IFA, had fought a rearguard action for months to stem the growing tide of disquiet.
However, on Thursday, the dam burst. A seven-line press release from the IFA’s headquarters in Bluebell in west Dublin announced Mr Smith’s departure . There were no explanations just a quote from Mr Smith, saying he was putting “the best interests of the association to the fore”.
Public outrage over his pay, with the IFA refusing to confirm or deny, appears to have pushed him over the edge.
For an organisation so good at cultivating the media and bending politicians to its will, being so much on the back foot must be galling.
“Nobody plays the political machine in Dublin and Brussels better than the IFA,” said one Brussels source, noting the organisation was seen as a model in Europe. A unique blend of grassroots protest and high-level lobbying is said to be key to its success.
The strength of its hold on politicians here is reflected in the almost universal silence from Leinster House on the matter of Mr Smith’s pay, up until he resigned at least.
Contrast this with the queue of TDs that lined up to bash Rehab over a similar controversy last year.
Smith, who took over at the helm in 2009, held key roles within the IFA for more than 25 years. He might have expected a longer spell in charge, given his predecessor Michael Berkery had spent 25 years in the post.
However, a former colleague said Smith had never really been involved in the policy side of the IFA and this may have contributed to his downfall.
The IFA’s executive council last month voted down a motion by Carlow county chairman and former vice-president Derek Deane calling for a full disclosure of Mr Smith’s remuneration. Instead, it pledged to reform its remuneration committee.
Budget of €12.5m
The organisation’s financial accountability appears to have precipitated the departure of Con Lucey last year. Lucey, who had been chairman of the IFA’s audit committee, got into a wrangle with Smith over several issues including remuneration.
For an organisation with a budget of €12.5 million, affording Smith a pay cheque of over half a million euro was never going to go down well with members.
According to Teagasc, the average farm income in the Republic in 2014 was €26,642, albeit this encompasses a high number of part-time operations.
Perhaps a more accurate comparison is with the more profitable side of the industry, namely dairy, where the average income was just under €68,000 in 2014. Smith’s pay for 2014 was seven times this.
Traditionally, the general secretary’s pay was linked with that of the secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, seemingly to ensure an even footing in negotiations.
Somewhere along the way, this link was broken. Why Smith’s remuneration left its traditional moorings remains a mystery.
The IFA’s watershed decision to publish his earnings on Friday reveal he was also drawing a separate salary from the group’s telecommunications arm, IFA Telecom, originally set up by Smith back in 1999, at least up until 2013.
The organisation has more than 88,000 members and is funded through members’ fees, factory levies and business interests.
It remains to be seen what effect the revelations about Smith’s pay will have on the grassroots.