Wednesday 28 September 2016

Former IFA President Eddie Downey: 'There's enough blood on the floor... it's very sad for my 91-year-old mother, my wife, my children, and for me'

'My reputation is shattered and my family suffered pain. I want record set straight'

Elaine Keogh

Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30

Former IFA President Eddie Downey at his Meath home last night Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Former IFA President Eddie Downey at his Meath home last night Photo: Ciara Wilkinson

Former President of the IFA Eddie Downey said he was "thrown under the bus" at a marathon meeting of farmers last week.

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He said that he had approval, and did not act on his own, when reaching a controversial €2m severance agreement with IFA general secretary Pat Smith.

Asked whose approval he had needed, he said: "I think there is enough reputational damage done to people; mine has been shattered, my family have suffered enough pain, I have no intention of inflicting pain on other people."

Mr Downey was speaking for the first time since he stood down as the president of the organisation which is engulfed in acrimony over the pay and perks of its ex-chief Pat Smith.

He said he is speaking now "to put the record straight", and he stand overs all he has done.

Today on RTE's Morning Ireland, Mr Downey said there is "enough blood on the floor" and he said people should move on and there should be no more resignations in the organisation.

“The executive board have taken the right steps here. They’ve done everything that Con Lucey has recommended therefore they’ve acted correct and honourably here and I don’t think they should resign.”

“I think there’s enough blood on the floor here. I think the organisation needs a period of healing and I think we all need to come together on that basis.”

Mr Downey described the last few weeks as a "difficult time", and he said his family has suffered.

“I’m a member of IFA, I’ve always been a member of the IFA. I shook hands with every president of this organisation except for one, I’ve met them all from marching as a kid, right through til now.”

“I know this organisation inside out and I’m a damn proud member of it. I’m very sad and saddened that I’ve come to a stage where I as president, the position I’ve held with great pride to be the fourteenth president of this organisation. It’s very sad for me and my family - my wife, my children, my 91-year-old mother to go through this whole process.”

“It’s a difficult stage. It’s a difficult thing to have to do. But I know I did the right thing, I know I’ve done nothing wrong here. I know I’ve acted in the interests of the organisation, and for that I’m proud.”

“There was a meeting in Meath last night of 300 farmers, I’d quite happily go back… I would gladly go back to them at any stage.”

Meanwhile, yesterday he insisted that he only became aware of the full remuneration package of IFA general secretary Mr Smith on November 19, and he acted on that information within hours.

Recalling the events that began almost two weeks ago, he said: "I went into the financial controller's office. I said I wanted to see all the details surrounding the GS's salary and he replied, 'You won't like what you are going to see'. I was very worried when I heard that."

Afterwards, he said: "I asked the financial controller to get our legal adviser as quickly as possible and he said to me, 'He is on standby'."

Angry

An hour later he met with the legal adviser, treasurer and the financial controller and he spoke by phone with the deputy president, Tim O'Leary.

Mr Downey said it was made "absolutely clear to me you cannot remove somebody from a salaried job just because of the size of that salary".

He said he then went to Pat Smith's office and "man to man, we had a very difficult conversation. I was angry but I had to take heed of all the advice I had just been given. I advised Pat Smith of his position and he decided to exit the IFA".

Mr Downey said he had approval for his actions in relation to the €2m severance package for Mr Smith.

"Afterwards, I got verbal approval for all the actions I had taken.

He described getting approval for Mr Smith's severance package as "a momentous moment".

"It is a serious position for the president of the association to go and deal with. It had to be dealt with but I had to have approval from other people and I did have it," he added.

Mr Downey insisted: "The only time that I acted on my own was when I looked for the information from the financial controller and when I delivered the initial message to Pat Smith, ie, that meeting when I advised him of his position."

He said that he himself decided to resign during the crisis meeting of farmers that took 17 hours last week, which he did not attend, as he had stood aside for Mr Lucey to conduct his review.

"I got word from the meeting that some of the facts surrounding my involvement surrounding the general secretary's departure were being mis-represented.

"In a very fraught room with a lot of emotion - there was no way I could counteract the misrepresentations, even if I had been there. The message I got was, I was thrown under the bus at the meeting."

Mr Downey said, as the controversy over pay at the IFA gathered steam, he was ultimately left with no other option but to resign.

"There was so much media coverage out there, so much pain in the farming community and in the IFA itself and so much misinformation being thrown out there that the only option was to stand aside, to move out of the picture and allow people time to get clarity on the issues."

Asked if he stands over his actions he said "absolutely" and he does not regret resigning.

Speaking about his own salary in the role, he added: "I walked in the door and was told the salary was €147,000.

"I did not set this salary, I had no hand, act or part in setting this salary, but I have put in place a remuneration committee to review this salary.

"I would gladly do this job for nothing, it is an absolute honour to be 14th president of this organisation," he added.

He said that after tax his salary amounts to €70,000 which pays for two people to run his farm, a commercial enterprise.

Mr Downey said he fully supports the review of pay and pensions in the IFA currently being carried out by Con Lucey, who had resigned as chair of its audit committee last year.

He was also happy for his own salary to be reviewed by the remuneration committee.

Mr Downey said that he and the treasurer of the IFA Jer Bergin had last December "refused to review the salary of the general secretary on the basis that we wanted it done within a proper structure, as directed by Con Lucey's letter".

He added: "While other people have said they refused to review the salary of the general secretary, and they have said this on the public record, they were not in a position to review it because there were only two people supposed to do that, and they are the treasurer and the president, as per the rules and regulations of the organisation, but we refused.

"I wanted the recommendation that Con Lucey put forward to be fully implemented. I felt there needed to be strengthened corporate governance within the organisation. There was no indication of anything being wrong but having good procedures is always a positive. I wanted a proper remuneration committee in place," Mr Downey said.

"I stuck my heels in the ground and said 'no' and the treasurer was of the same mind."

He said the IFA has grown into an internationally recognised association with great leverage for its 90,000 members and, "to operate at those levels, you need the best staff you can possibly get and to attract those you need to offer good salaries. Notwithstanding that, the salary paid to our general secretary was unacceptable and unsustainable".

He described the IFA as "ruthless", but said this trait is also the secret of its success down through the years.

Ruthless

"(The IFA) is a political organisation. They are ruthless in their approach but that ruthlessness is also their power.

"It is something I have understood for 25 years.

"I found myself holding that parcel when the music stopped, and I was the one who stopped the music," he added.

The IFA is now facing a leadership limbo, with elections for a new president not likely to take place until well into the New Year.

Under the IFA constitution, an election for a new president must be held within 60 days of the previous president's resignation.

However, an IFA source said: "It just would not be physically possible to have a sound election that wouldn't end up being legally challenged.

Pressure also continues to increase on the current IFA executive board with a number of counties supporting former president John Donnelly's call that the entire executive board should step down in the best interests of the association.

At grassroots level at least six county boards - Galway, Mayo, West Cork, Roscommon, Sligo and Donegal - have passed various motions calling for the entire executive board to step down.

Despite these difficulties and reports of members cancelling their subscriptions, Mr Downey nonetheless believes the organisation's future is very healthy.

"It is very, very strong, its membership base, it will be as strong going forward from here as it always has been.

"It still has a strong membership base and representing a €10.5bn export industry a year, this organisation is an essential part of the fabric of rural Ireland."

The IFA last night said it did not wish to comment on Mr Downey's interview.

Irish Independent

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