The election of Slane farmer Eddie Downey as president of the Irish Farmers' Association last night means the Co Meath village may now be in the unique position of having produced a president, a lord (Henry Mount Charles) and a bishop (Denis Nulty).
Mr Downey (52) will be the 14th president of the IFA. He was keen to point out that he is only the second president to come from north of the line from Galway to Dublin.
His fellow Meathman Tom Clinton was the first.
Mr Downey secured 1,079 votes while his only rival, Jer Bergin from Ballacolla, Co Laois, got 779.
During the election campaign, observers said the contest was too close to call, but once the ballot boxes were opened at Castleknock Hotel yesterday morning Mr Downey took a lead and built on that as the day went on.
He farms 140 acres with his wife Mary and son Patrick (19) at Monknewtown in Slane. The couple also has a daughter Alice (22).
Their main farm enterprises are suckling, tillage and poultry. Mr Downey is, until he takes up his new office, deputy president of IFA, and has held many positions in the organisation since he became involved 20 years ago.
Running for the IFA presidency is an onerous task as outgoing president John Bryan would testify. While some people baulk at the increased size of the constituencies in the European Parliament elections, the IFA candidates have a constituency of 26 counties.
At one point it looked like a woman might contest the race for the first time as a campaign built up to encourage Maireád Lavery of the Irish Farmers' Journal to run. She was a prominent member of the IFA in the past and said she gave it serious consideration before deciding against it.
Both candidates travelled thousands of miles to canvass as many of IFA's 88,000-plus members as possible. They attended 13 head-to-head debates around the country and had teams of workers in every county. One observer suggested the typical election campaign would cost at least €40,000.
The president does not receive a salary for the four-year term but the organisation pays all travelling and other expenses. It also pays for the hire of a worker to do the farm work the president might otherwise do.
It’s a mammoth task so why would a farmer take it on? Mr Downey agreed that it was a big challenge. “I remember at one stage saying, ‘My voice is gone, my car needs servicing and my head needs examining’,” he said.
In his acceptance speech last night he recalled how his father received a plaque for going “above and beyond the call of duty for farmers” during the farmers’ march of 1966 “and I’m very proud to be here as his son, and very proud to stand in the footsteps of all who have gone before me”. He was joined by his 89-year-old mother Josephine, who took a sprightly jump onto the stage.
Mr Downey said farming had been rocked by difficult times in recent years because of the downturn but “we are now about to start on the process of rebuilding”. He also highlighted the widespread sale of very cheap fruit and vegetables by supermarkets this week and said it was “unacceptable” that supermarkets were tearing apart the incomes of vegetable growers “because of an effort to get footfall across a multiple’s door”. “We simply have to say, enough is enough,” he said.
Earlier there was a surprise in the election of the deputy president when late entrant Tim O'Leary from Carrigrohane, Co Cork, beat JJ Kavanagh from New Ross by just 19 votes.
Meanwhile, Kerryman James McCarthy won the contest to be the next Munster chairman.
All the newly-elected officials take office at the association’s AGM on January 14th.
Issues: Five challenges facing the new IFA leader
1 While the Common Agricultural Policy reforms have been agreed, the nuts and bolts of the various schemes are still being worked out and the new president will have to hit the ground running to ensure his members’ voices are heard.
2 The below-cost selling of fruit and vegetables in supermarkets this week highlights the pressure suppliers are being put under in the supermarket wars for market share. A code of practice has been promised by the Government for some time but has still not materialised.
3 Despite what the banks argue, farmers say it is still a battle to get credit to fund their expansion plans. Milk quotas are being abolished in 2015 and dairy farmers are planning their growth now.
4 It is often seen as just an issue for Macra na Feirme, but helping young farmers to access land is becoming a key issue for the entire sector as the average age of farmers
continues to rise.
5 One of the president’s first jobs will be to ease tensions between head office and disgruntled members in the northwest and west. Some farmers have been critical of the organisation’s stance in the Cap negotiations, saying it favoured larger producers. Granlahan in Co Roscommon was the only branch not to return a vote in this election, as members boycotted the process to show their dissatisfaction.