Former Fianna Fáil minister Joe Walsh dies aged 71

Cork politician was minister for agriculture during foot and mouth crisis in 2001

Former minister for agriculture Joe Walsh. File photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

Former minister for agriculture Joe Walsh. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

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The death has occurred of former Fianna Fáil minister for agriculture Joe Walsh.

Mr Walsh (71), who stepped down from the Dáil at the 2007 general election, died last night at Cork University Hospital following a short illness.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said Mr Walsh’s death came “as a shock to me and his many friends and admirers across the country” while Taoiseach Enda Kenny sent his sympathy to the Walsh family and to the Fianna Fáil party.

Mr Martin said Mr Walsh’s “brilliant leadership” in responding to the foot and mouth crisis in 2001 was “instrumental in mitigating a disaster that had the potential to wipe out a way of life”.

In a statement this morning, Mr Martin said his former colleague “was a man of vision who had a profound impact on the development of Irish agriculture and food over a number of decades.

“He devoted his entire life to public service and did so with immense skill and integrity. His particular interest and expertise in agriculture and food saw him entrusted with responsibility in the area by three taoisigh,” he said.

“His political leadership of the agriculture sector in this country over many years helped transform the sector into the economic keystone that it has become for our country today and the positive effects of his reforms will be felt for generations to come. He was the minister who above anybody else brought the development of the food industry centre stage in economic policy.

“Over the course of 30 years in Oireachtas Éireann, Joe Walsh proved to be an outstanding parliamentarian of vision and service. He was a passionate advocate for his community in Clonakilty and his beloved west Cork, and he had a deep commitment to developing sustainable rural life across our country. He was also a good and loyal friend.”

In a statement, Mr Kenny said he knew Mr Walsh well throughout his career in the Oireachtas. “He was a dedicated representative of the people of Cork South West and a hard-working and committed Minister. He will be remembered in particular for his decisive and successful management of the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.”

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern said he and Mr Walsh were first elected to Dáil Éireann on the same day in the general election of 1977. He said Mr Walsh was Minister for Agriculture at the time he was Minister for Finance in Albert Reynolds’s Government.

“He had a deep insight into the challenges faced by rural Ireland and he had a huge knowledge of Irish agriculture,” Mr Ahern said. On my election as Taoiseach, he was an automatic choice to serve as Minister for Agriculture.

“Joe did a fantastic job deploying his immense knowledge and work ethic for the betterment of all.

He was a skilled politician and this was evident to everyone, even those not immersed in agricultural issues, during the Foot and Mouth crisis. This disease had the potential to do serious damage to our national economy, but Joe’s work on the taskforce to stop the spread of the disease in Ireland was a master-class in management, logistics and public relations.

“It was work that was hugely important to protecting our economy and Irish jobs.”

Tánaiste Joan Burton said she served with Mr Walsh as a minister in the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition between 1992 and 1994. “It was during this time that I witnessed at first hand his supreme command of the agriculture and food briefs,” she said. “His successful chairmanship of the EU Council of Ministers was a testament to his sharp political skill, and won him many accolades not just at home but also abroad.”

Mayor of County Cork, Fianna Fáil Cllr Alan Coleman spoke today of Mr Walsh’s immense presence in the county.

“He was one of the most influential politicians of his generation in Cork. His influence was enormous. His loss is a major shock. It is a great loss.”

Meanwhile, Michael McCarthy, a Labour TD in Cork South West, said Mr Walsh was “a true gentleman and an outstanding statesman who served his country and his constituency with conviction and vigour.”

ICSA president Patrick Kent also paid tribute to Mr Walsh. “While many will point to his success in preventing the spread of foot and mouth disease in 2001 as his finest hour, it is arguable that his decision to introduce full decoupling will have the longest legacy,” said Mr Kent.

“He played a central role in the 2003 CAP reform process under EU Commissioner Franz Fischler and followed up the agreement by choosing the full decoupling option for Ireland in line with the ICSA viewpoint. This decision was brave given that many were opposed to it, but in the fullness of time most came to realise that it was the correct one.”

Mr Walsh is survived by his wife Marie and children Ronan, Denise, Killian, Brian and Kate.

Funeral details have as yet to be announced.

Mr Walsh was born in Ballineen, Co Cork.

He was educated at St Finbarr’s College, Cork and University College Cork. He qualified with a degree in Dairy Science in 1970.

He began his career as a researcher in the National Dairy Research Centre at Moorepark, near Fermoy, Co Cork. He subsequently became Managing Director of Strand Dairies in Clonakilty.

Mr Walsh became a Cork county councillor in 1974. He remained on the council until the 1991 local elections.

He was returned as a Fianna Fáil TD for Cork South-West at the 1977 general election. He lost his seat at the 1981 general election but secured election on the Cultural and Educational Panel to Seanad Eireann.

He was re-elected to the Dáil at the 1982 general election and retained his seat at every subsequent election until his retirement.

He was appointed Ireland’s first minister for food in 1987. He served as minister for agriculture from 1992 to 1994 and from 1997 to 2004.

He chaired the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers.

Mr Walsh also served on several boards, including Cork Racecourse (Mallow) Limited and the Irish Horse Board. He was appointed a non-executive director of Bank of Ireland five years ago.

Mr Walsh has received several awards, including the Legion d’honneur and the Grand Cross of the Agricultural Order of Merit of Spain.

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