Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Competition Authority should tackle vested interests not soft targets such as the IFA offices

John Shirley

The Competition Authority's raid on the IFA offices is disappointing but I am not really surprised. This raid, by an arm of the State, is consistent with a widespread practice of chasing the soft targets while the real monopolies and vested interests doing harm to the economy and individuals get the light touch regulation.

I believe that the Competition Authority's approach and behaviour is mirrored by the Food Safety Authority, the Health and Safety Authority, the gardai and maybe even the Revenue Commission. Farmers, small businesses and artisan food producers are vulnerable because of their isolation and weak individual bargaining power. Banks, large corporations, even trade unions with their powerful allies are seen to operate under a different code of governance.

This chasing of soft targets rather than tackling powerful vested interests is causing huge anger and frustration among the law abiding public. It is also the major factor delaying economic recovery.

Of all the ills that afflict the Irish populace in May 2011, an allegation by a retailer that farmers were trying to get a livelihood from producing milk, must be a long way down the queue. Indeed, when I heard of the raid, I wondered if it was connected with the queen's visit and that maybe there was a republican splinter group among farmers.

I'm sure that President John Bryan must be in a dilemma in the face of the accusation of price fixing. If the IFA is found guilty, at least it stands accused of doing a good job for its members. If found not guilty, can the opposite be assumed?

Were it not so serious and the fact that taxpayers' money is involved, the raid would be a joke.


The response of the Competition Authority to the retailer allegation on milk-price fixing is in sharp contrast to its response 12 years ago when the IFA asked the same authority to look into anti-competitive practices amongst Irish beef factories. At that time, beef prices had all the appearance of a cartel in operation but the Competition Authority asked the IFA to come up with the proof. There was no concerted raid by the Competition Authority on the meat processors nor will there ever be.

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When it comes to affairs between supermarkets and their suppliers the balance of abuse is not coming from the farmer side. What about 'hello money'? What about the plethora of conditions? What about the bullying? Are these farmer activities? Hardly.

The IFA has highlighted time and again the inequity in the food supply chain, where powerful retailers dictate the terms and put the livelihoods of producers under threat. The Competition Authority continues to ignore the substantial margins enjoyed by the retailers and the lack of competition in the grocery market. As Mr Bryan pointed out, "the facts are that the farmer's share of the consumer price of liquid milk is at the lowest level ever, and to suggest that farmers have any power over the retail multiples is nonsense."

Where is the Competition Authority when it comes to tackling the monopoly practices and huge fees in the legal profession, the medical consultants and the pharmacists? Even the IMF has identified these groups as being out of line both within the Irish economy and with their counterparts in the rest of Europe.

The IMF/EU bankers have also expressed amazement at the Croke Park deal and its extraordinary protection of the perks and privileges for Irish public and civil servants. Through the banking bailout the taxpaying teachers, nurses and civil servants in Germany and elsewhere in the EU are being asked to pay for the far better salaries and conditions that their counterparts in Ireland enjoy. As this realisation sinks in, the citizens of Europe will quite rightly revolt. We have already got a taste of this with the emergence in Finland of the 'True Finn' party and its objection to bailing out those who are paid more to do less work. I believe that if other citizens across the EU had the chance they would vote in the same way as the Finns.

In Ireland the greatest evasion of all is the delay in tackling the banking abuses and white-collar crime. Contrast the speed with which the US prosecuted the errant investment manager Bernard Madoff and the management of Enron with the Irish approach to the banking abuses that have pushed us towards financial disaster.

This came to a head last week when High Court judge Peter Kelly criticised the slow pace of the investigation into Anglo Irish Bank by the Director of Corporate Enforcement. Good for Judge Kelly, who reflected the anger of the public over the failure to thoroughly investigate and prosecute possible criminal deeds in the commercial and corporate sector.


How often do we hear that a report on such and such has been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions and that seems the last of it?

White-collar crime and business scams may appear victimless as no blood is spilt or nobody immediately dies. But in reality such crime puts its hands into everybody's pocket. It can devastate families and wipe out life savings as happened with the wipeout in Irish bond share value.

I had hoped that our new Government would show more courage in tackling the power blocks but the omens are not good. When they wanted money to finance last week's jobs package they raided the private pensions and left the monster of the public pensions untouched.

It may be human nature to go for the soft option but in the context of Ireland's economy today this approach is doing massive damage as well as being a moral failure.

Indo Farming