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Independent.ie

Sunday 22 October 2017

Darragh McCullough: IFA presidential electoral race that's still too close to call

Laois man Jer Bergin starting to claw back deputy president's early poll lead

IFA President Padraig Walshe could be the real ace up Jer Bergin's sleeve
IFA President Padraig Walshe could be the real ace up Jer Bergin's sleeve
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The IFA presidential elections traditionally kick off during the week of the Ploughing Championships.

This year, it's a two-horse race between Meath's Eddie Downey and Laois's Jer Bergin.

The general consensus from around the country is that Downey has been well ahead so far due to his more extensive activity on the ground over the past 12 months.

He recently had his official campaign launch bash in Tayto Park, where he unveiled his 20-member core team, with prominent Meath dairy farmer Diarmuid Lally at the helm.

However, as the Bergin machine cranks into gear, most observers have noted that the gap has closed significantly, with possibly more momentum behind the Laois man's campaign at this point.

Downey knows that one of his main weaknesses is his geographical location in the northeast. Bergin has the advantage of a very central location in the heart of prime farming country in south Laois. For this reason he is likely to be able to tie up surrounding branches in Carlow and Kilkenny, too.

Against this core of Bergin support, Downey has worked tirelessly building up contacts and friendships in both Connacht and Munster, where he has realised that he must convince the dairying community of his ability to understand and fight their corner.

He has already leveraged his wife's connections down in Waterford, pulling high-profile economist Jim Power into the ranks of his supporters. Having Lally by his side will also help sway dairy votes.

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Direction

But it is Bergin who has the real ace up his sleeve when it comes to the in-law's connections. His wife is a sister of the wife of former IFA president Padraig Walshe. That link could be key in pulling key votes Bergin's direction over the next three months.

Downey's response to this has been to get out to as many branches as possible over the past number of years and his nationwide campaign for deputy president four years ago will stand to him now that he needs branch chairmen to make a 'real' decision in his favour.

Both men have also enlisted the services of heavyweight spin doctors.

Bergin has signed up former Fine Gael adviser and Teagasc press officer, Michael Miley.

Miley's opposite number is none other than the IFA's former press officer, Derek Cunningham. After many years in the Farm Centre, he signed up as Mary Harney's spin doctor in the Department of Health.

There is a general perception that, while Downey is the more polished speaker and very comfortable behind a mic, that he may not be just as tough a negotiator as Bergin.

"Downey will talk and talk and try too hard not to fall out with anybody. But in the process he's giving away the whole time," said one southern observer.

Failings

It is also possible that Downey may carry the can for the perceived failings of the past four years in IFA.

"Too many issues were let slide under the deputy president's watch. The charter of rights has effectively disappeared and the wetland rules that were introduced are annoying people in the west," commented another western official.

Indeed, the role of deputy president may have been a double-edged sword for Downey in securing support in this election.

"On one hand being deputy allowed him to have a profile and really get around the country over the past four years. But I can't remember hearing much out of him at council. Jer was pretty quiet too, but I expected to hear more personal opinion from Eddie during the years. Was he over-shadowed by the bigger personality of John Bryan? I don't know," commented one national council member.

However, everybody agrees that this contest is still all to play for.

"Neither of them are as well known as John Bryan was when he was going for the job. They don't have the 'trip to Brazil' factor that was huge in cementing John Bryan as a leader in people's minds. It will still come down to a branch by branch fight," said an eastern-based official.

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