IFA hopes today’s election will close dark chapter

Analysis: the new president of the farmers’ group will have to restore credibility

Galway candidate Joe Healy: playing the outsider’s card at hustings.

Galway candidate Joe Healy: playing the outsider’s card at hustings.

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Having endured some of its worst times in its history over the last six months, the Irish Farmers’ Association will today hope to begin to close an unhappy chapter with the election of a new president.

However, the new head of the organisation, headquartered on the Long Mile Road in Dublin, will do so with anaemic support from the membership: turnout was up to 40 per cent down in some regions. Just a fifth of eligible voters turned out in some local branches.

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.

Galway candidate Joe Healy, a former head of young farmers’ group Macra na Feirme, has played the outsider’s card at hustings throughout the country, saying the association needed someone “outside the perceived hierarchy of the IFA with an untarnished reputation”.

Putting distance between himself and alleged sins of the past, Healy 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.

His pitches at those hustings have varied little, where he has sought to voice the anger of ordinary members still reeling from revelations about the IFA’s former general secretary Pat Smith’s half-million-euro salary and the culture of secrecy that surrounded it.

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 against National Livestock chairman Henry Burns, the hierarchy’s preferred candidate, and rural development boss Flor McCarthy.

Lifting the lid

Significantly, Healy has also hinted at lifting the lid on the pay of those who previously filled Mr Smith’s post in Bluebell, including Mr Michael Berkery – a move the current administration has so far resisted.

Whether Healy 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 today, 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 McCarthy’s transfers. However, 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.

Munster candidate

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

If Healy has played the outsider’s card at the 25 three- way debates that have taken place, Burns and McCarthy have trumpeted their experience at the forefront of IFA politics to counter the Galwayman’s anti-establishment credentials.

Having held senior posts for several years, both have claimed to have the necessary leadership skills and to know their way around the Department of Agriculture and, most importantly, Brussels, where the majority of the group’s lobbying is done.

Not everyone is convinced that Healy will win. “If the election had been held two months ago, Healy would have swept in, but tempers have cooled and things have moved on a bit,” said one insider, who expected Burns to come out on top.

Unsurprisingly, all three candidates argued that farmers needed more of the final price for their produce, that retailers were too strong, and that there needed to be greater political will to improve what farmers earn.

Despite the fury expressed at the height of the controversy late last year, farmers were notably slow to cancel their subscriptions, or, more importantly, to stop the fee they pay through the marts for each animal sold.

Crashing commodity prices have put the squeeze on rural Ireland; dairy farmers have struggled with lower milk prices – all of which fed into why Fine Gael’s election slogan to “keep the recovery going” did so badly in one-time heartlands.

However, the shadow’s left by last year’s debacle will long lay across the organisation, not least because Smith has drawn up legal papers to sue his former employers for his €2 million severance.

Apart from the legal costs, a full hearing in the High Court could result in another round of damaging revelations, with Smith claiming he received less than his predecessor Michael Berkery, now the chairman of FBD insurance.

Never a man to be underestimated, Berkery, the IFA’s general secretary for 25 years up to 2009, has warned his former organisation not to release details of his salary as they are covered by a confidentiality agreement.

Forced to resign

At the recent hustings in Meath, where former president Eddie Downey farms, there was a lot of anger at how Downey had been treated, and even a suggestion that he deserved an apology. Downey was forced to resign after it emerged that he had sanctioned Smith’s generous severance deal, which involves €1 million upfront and €100,000 annually over 10 years if it eventually has to be honoured.

Downey’s supporters, and he still has more than a few, insist that he had the approval of other senior figures when he signed off on the deal, while he himself claims he was “thrown under the bus”. Drawing a line under the IFA’s darkest days will be no easy task.

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