IFA controversy: Warnings went unheeded by top brass

The committee head warned of negative publicity if reforms were not made

 Former IFA general secretary Pat Smith and IFA president Eddie Downey. Smith has stepped down from his position. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Former IFA general secretary Pat Smith and IFA president Eddie Downey. Smith has stepped down from his position. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The final lines of Con Lucey’s departing letter to the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) last year are revealing in the context of its current woes.

Lucey resigned as chairman of the group’s internal audit committee, claiming his work was being frustrated by the then general secretary, Pat Smith.

In his letter addressed to association president Eddie Downey but circulated to others, Lucey said: “I know we both agree that IFA – like Caesar’s wife in the popular quotation – must be above suspicion, because of the responsibilities it bears.

“It is obvious that the association needs to maintain the confidence of the very large membership base and needs to ensure that the association’s work is not eroded by negative publicity,” he added.

Storm

In past week, the controversy has shifted from the size of Smith’s salary – €445,00 in 2014 and €535,000 in 2013 – to, who were the dogs that didn’t bark?

For most members, the buck stops with Downey.

As recently as two weeks ago, he casually rebuffed questions about Smith’s pay, claiming media reports, which ultimately proved correct, were “uncorroborated” and “unsubstantiated and should be ignored”.

We now also know that he and the IFA’s treasurer Jer Bergin refused to sign off on the general secretary’s pay because they were unhappy with the procedures involved.

All of which make his claim not to have known the extent of Smith’s salary difficult to fathom.

Downey appears to have bought himself time, however, by standing back from his role as president pending a review of corporate governance structures, including remuneration, by the newly reinstalled Lucey.

Landslide

He was elected president of the organisation in January in 2014 with nearly 75 per cent of the vote from the organisation’s 900 or so regional branches, a landslide in IFA terms.

However, he is struggling to decouple himself from Smith, having mounted a stern defence of his general secretary, at least publicly, at every turn.

In an attempt to embrace its new culture of transparency, the IFA released details of Downey’s own remuneration on Monday, saying his basic pay amounted to €147,000.

However, the revelation was immediately steamrolled by farming news website Agriland, which revealed he was also in receipt of two directors’ fees – €30,000 from FBD Insurance and €11,970 from Bord Bia – bringing his actual remuneration closer to €200,000.

The penny is dropping about transparency but not quickly enough, it seems.