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Monday 22 January 2018

'I believe strongly in the IFA': Rowena Dwyer on life as the IFA's chief economist

Rowena Dwyer was appointed IFA chief economist in the eye of the 2008 national financial storm Photo: Bryan Meade
Rowena Dwyer was appointed IFA chief economist in the eye of the 2008 national financial storm Photo: Bryan Meade
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Three weeks into her new role at the IFA, a then 28-year-old Rowena Dwyer was faced with the momentous task of explaining the financial crash and bailout to farmers nationwide.

Without warning, the late Brian Lenihan, then finance minister, announced a €34m cut in the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme as part of the first emergency budget in October 2008.

It was only the tip of the iceberg as to what lay ahead.

Phones were hopping mad at IFA branches across the country, with farmers desperately seeking information and asking "should I take my money out of the banks?".

Farmers wanted answers, IFA officers needed direction, the organisation needed a firm position, and it all landed at the then newly appointed chief economist's door.

Ms Dwyer, guided by former IFA chief economist, Con Lucey, calmly sat down to write a briefing note to be distributed to IFA regional branches and into the political sphere.

"I had to make a judgment call. My strong feeling was that we are part of the EU, and no matter how difficult the situation, Ireland will not be allowed to descend into chaos.

"I wanted to give people the clearest information on what was going on to try and allay panic because things were awful and frankly we had to avoid a situation where you could see a run on the banks because people thought their money would disappear.

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"It was my responsibility to give people reassurance," she said.

Although it was a time when she felt she "aged overnight," she also describes this period, and the ensuing years of "fire-fighting for farmers against collapsing public finances", among her proudest moments in her nine years at IFA headquarters in Bluebell, Dublin.

Born in Boherlahan-Dualla, Co Tipperary, Ms Dwyer says she grew up in a very progressive household where farming, education and a strong sense of community were central pillars to her development.

Her father, Willie, was a lecturer at Rockwell Agricultural College, now closed, and a part-time beef farmer. Her mother, Eleanor, was a speech and drama teacher.

They also both held prominent positions on IFA committees.

"As a three-year-old I still have memories of coming up on the train with my Mam when she was going to meetings in the Farm Centre. My grandparents lived in Chapelizod and used to mind me for the day," she said, recalling a fond memory of getting a lift home to the Premier County with former IFA president, and family friend, Joe Rea, when she was six years old.

Although she had a keen interest in agriculture, politics and current affairs, at school she became captivated by economics and its impact on public policy, leading her to Trinity College Dublin.

She says Alan Matthews, Professor of European Agricultural Policy at TCD, sparked her interest in agri economics.However, Irish agriculture was extremely quiet in the late 1990s and early noughties.

"Ireland was going through a different period of growth altogether.

"We were heading into five years of credit-fuelled growth, agriculture in particular didn't have a high profile," she said.

Ms Dwyer continued her studies at York University where she did her thesis on CAP reform 2002. Her father suggested she speak to veteran IFA economist Con Lucey.

Little did she know six years later she would be taking over his role in the IFA.

In the meantime, Ms Dwyer developed her skills in various roles at the Higher Education Authority and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

She also spent two years working in Ghana, west Africa in their ministry of education.

"It was two of the most colourful years of my life. We secured huge funding towards the enrolment of young girls and removing fees from education," she said.

Although she loved working on the development side of economics, agriculture was calling.

In early 2008, the IFA advertised for the role of chief economist - Mr Lucey was stepping down after 30 years.

"I thought it was a huge and unique opportunity to provide the skills and experience I had up to that point to an organisation that I absolutely, even from a young age, believed so strongly in," she said.

Although she thought her age, just 28, might be a factor, she said she "never saw being a woman as an obstacle".

"Growing up in my household it was taken as a given that we would do our very best, girls and boys, in whatever area of life that we chose to pursue. I was very lucky, my parents were incredibly equal, a real partnership."

"I was more conscious of my age and more conscious of being a female economist than being a female in agriculture," she said.

Roots

She landed the job during the dramatic economic downturn, but always had a clear vision that agriculture could provide a beacon of hope.

"It was our role to make the strongest possible argument to minimise cuts to farmers and give a credible argument to government that economic growth will arise out of this," she said.

Despite her high-powered position Ms Dwyer, wife to Conor and mother of Ben (3) and Rory (1), who now lives in Clontarf, Dublin, will never forget her roots.

"After getting the role I remember being at Mass at home with my Mam. Our neighbours were coming up wishing me well, they were so delighted that one of their own was in such an important role," she said.

However, she admits the IFA salary scandal in 2015 was a difficult period.

"Personally and professionally it has been difficult. But because of my family background and the parish I come from I've seen the absolute desire at ground level for IFA to be strong. There is a trust and belief that the organisation will work its way through this," she said.

Ms Dwyer, who regularly gives talks on women in agriculture and economics, wants more females in both sectors.

"We have some trailblazers in the IFA in Catherine Lascurettes and Elaine Farrell but we're only at the starting line. Those of us who are in the mix, it's up to us to bring girls along and help them if they are interested," she said.

'CAP cuts post-Brexit won't be accepted'

The CAP budget cannot be subjected to a linear cut because of Brexit, IFA chief economist Rowena Dwyer has warned.

Such a move would not be “fair or acceptable” for farmers, she said.

She also strongly believes there is potential for the UK and the EU to arrive at a “mutually positive” outcome.

“The CAP budget cannot just be cut by the UK exiting. It is not fair or acceptable for farmers who have had nothing whatsoever to do with this that they would just be presented with that fait accompli.

“We’re not going to allow it to go unnoticed and we will oppose any move to do so,” said Ms Dwyer who will address farmers at the IFA’s upcoming Brexit conference on April 24, at Goffs, in Dublin.

Ms Dwyer also urges Irish, UK and EU politicians not to “play fast and loose” with farming livelihoods for political reasons.

“I’m very pro-EU but I don’t think mutual destruction has to be the outcome here.”


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