Farm Ireland

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Profile: Damian McDonald the man who got the biggest job in farming

New IFA director general, Damian McDonald
New IFA director general, Damian McDonald

Ken Whelan

His friends say he is a "smart guy who is usually two steps in front of the game " and will be "well up" to the challenge of his new job as director general at the IFA.

They are also adamant that Damian McDonald is not known to collect enemies.

The 44-year-old Wexford man, who takes up the €213,100-a-year package in Bluebell in January, is effectively swapping his job at Horse Sport Ireland with its €6m annual budget and 28 staff for an organisation twice that size.

The IFA had a €13m turnover, 70 staff and more than 80,000 voluntary members this time last year. Events in the interim have severely hit those numbers, and so the level of scrutiny from remaining members will be greater than ever.

McDonald will have a much bigger in-tray at the IFA come January than he currently has at Horse Sport Ireland, where his end-of-year tasks include the re-appointment of high performance coaches for our elite Olympic show jumpers and riders, and the scheduling of next year's show jumping in greyhound stadiums.

The latter was an idea he successfully developed over the past two years, following a suggestion by former agriculture minister Simon Coveney.

McDonald has blue chip qualifications for the fraught IFA position. He comes from solid farming stock, hailing from a dairy, beef and pig enterprise at Crossabeg, just north of Wexford town. But he has also served his time within the agricultural policy and lobbying world of Bluebell.


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From 1997 to 1999, he was ag policy officer with Macra, followed by a stint in the IFA's livestock division, before he became Macra CEO for six years in 2001.

His tenure with Macra, albeit a decade ago, will certainly help him negotiate the nooks and crannies of the Farm Centre on the Naas Road, and negotiate much more besides.

One example of his ability to defuse potential landmines was his position on a proposal to set up an IFA Young Farmers Committee, which of course would have diluted Macra's role.

Those in the know at the time marvelled at that small but important defence of the status quo, and no doubt the tactics used in that skirmish will come in useful in the challenges facing the IFA at the moment.

A UCD master in economics, his two main passions in life are said to be hurling and quizzes.

Self-described as a "moderate to no good" hurler depending on the day and the underfoot conditions, he landed the job of training the DIT hurling team while he was working as a part-time teacher in the institute while completing his UCD masters degree. He was so good that they kept him on for 10 years.

A stint on the training staff of the Dublin under-21 football team followed, and if you are ever passing through his current hometown of Stradbally in Co Laois, ask the locals how the under-14 hurling team is doing - you will get some positive answers.

His other hobby - quizzes - is also taken very seriously. "Ask him the name of the actor who played Alf Roberts in Coronation Street and he'll manage to drag out the answer, though I can't say he is a well-known fan of the soap operas," one friend said.

That ability for memory recall served him well when he appeared on numerous occasions on RTE quizzes, answering starters and bonus questions for UCD, but it may also be a secret weapon that will be deployed to maximum effect when negotiations get down to the inevitable nitty-gritty of fine detail.

For the past nine years he has been chief executive of Horse Sport Ireland, a brain-child of the late former minister for agriculture, Joe Walsh. According to equestrian sources, McDonald did a remarkable job considering the available budget and the huge range of equestrian organisations which come within its remit.

As one wag remarked: "You'd want to have some managerial ability to deal with elite show jumpers and horsemen, Connemara pony breeders, guys who want more priority for horse-carriage-driving, to say nothing about dealing with the controversies which sometimes happen when horses fall onto syringes or boxes of steroids. It takes ability to keep all those hens under one roof".

Described by all his associates as a "consensus man", he will hope to bring a calmness to the IFA, which has been riven by dissent over the past few years.

McDonald is the eldest in his family and has six younger sisters. He is married to Siobhan and the couple have three children - Mark (17), Katie (15) and Sean (13).

Indo Farming