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Sunday 21 January 2018

Downey must pick right battles in fight to keep the IFA relevant

Eddie Downey from Co Meath is held shoulder high as the result of the IFA presidential Election is announced. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Eddie Downey from Co Meath is held shoulder high as the result of the IFA presidential Election is announced. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Eddie Downey, aged 52, from Slane, Co Meath will today become the 14th president of the Irish Farmers Association.

He follows in some illustrious footsteps, after Juan Green (1955) Rickard Deasy (1962), TJ Maher (1967), Paddy Lane (1976), Donal Cashman (1980), Joe Rea (1984), Tom Clinton (1988), Alan Gillis (1990), John Donnelly (1994), Tom Parlon (1998), John Dillon (2002), Padraig Walshe (2006) and John Bryan (2010).

Every new president faces challenges but Eddie Downey is arriving at a time of great uncertainty about the level of continuing EU support and who will get it, what will happen in dairying when milk quotas go and whether farmers can ever be assured of receiving a fair price for the food they produce.

But Downey also faces another challenge -- growing dissatisfaction with the association from a section of its own farmer members.

While the IFA, in its political negotiations, routinely points out that it has 88,000 members, a cursory analysis of the recent presidential election shows that just 31,730 (36pc) of these voted.

Irish farming, farmers themselves and their main representative organisation are all going through an identity crisis at the moment, it would appear.

So who does the IFA represent in 2014? Can it legitimately claim to represents all sectors? What will farming in Ireland look like a generation from now?

Perhaps the way to answer this is the Irish way, with another question. Do Irish farmers as a group still have common goals and, if so, what are they?

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For some farmers, their primary goal is to increase income, while for others it is to have an income. Is it possible for the same organisation to represent a farmer in the west of Ireland with 10 suckler cows on poor land and a southern dairy farmer with 150 dairy cows working to double output from 2015 when milk quotas go?

No doubt the recent round of CAP reform has contributed to the situation. In that process, farmer has been pitted against farmer, upland against lowland, west against east; and politicians wading into the debate has not eased the tension.

However, despite the fact that farmers might be unhappy with the IFA they are not looking to move to another organisation; it's to change the one they are in.

While we would all love it if the new president were to set out a luminous vision for the future of farming in Ireland, they know that Eddie Downey, nor any other president before him, does not wield a magic wand.

POTENT

Agriculture is and will remain a potent force nationally but much of what happens is controlled by outside forces like the EU and the international marketplace.

In reality, his term of office will probably be measured by how he delivers on the problems that he inherits or those that emerge along the way. Members want to feel that they are being listened to and feel that action is being delivered on the issues that affect them in their daily lives.

Over the past year, there have been some issues that affected all farmers but the IFA was perceived as being not active or forceful enough.

These included the changed rules in relation to driving licence requirements for towing trailers and taxing of old tractors.

Then there is the promised groceries code of conduct and the ongoing battle for credit from the banks. These issues don't affect all farmers equally but we are generally all on the same side of the fence.

The real issue on price is the supermarkets and the battle ground is no longer just the factory gate. I'm not saying that factories aren't opportunistic but they are price takers as well; the only difference is that they can also be price givers, while farmers are only ever going to be takers.

The IFA has to challenge head-on the idea that perishable food can be used as a loss leader. Most of the focus up to now has been on vegetables, but milk and meat will not escape.

Perhaps the IFA needs to consider revising its branch structure, which currently only ever seems to swing into action when there's a need to rally the troops for some protest or other.

It's not so long ago since branches held regular meetings with guest speakers and topical debates which provided members the opportunity to raise issues relevant to them.

I wonder how many branches now hold meetings outside of the AGM?

It is in farmers' best interest to have a strong, united voice. The early indications are that Eddie Downey is building a strong team around him and he has already shown himself to be a skilled communicator with non-farmers as well as farmers.

Eddie Downey can win battles and make his mark but he needs to be careful which battles he chooses ... and then he needs to be lucky.

Ann Fitzgerald can be contacted at cooleballacolla@gmail.com

Irish Independent