Farmers had real influence in my day – Yates

Newstalk host and Irish Independent columnist Ivan Yates talks about changing farm politics and his Ag House days

Former agriculture minister Ivan Yates. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Former agriculture minister Ivan Yates. Photo: Frank McGrath.
CONTROL: Ivan Yates addressing protesters outside the EU summit in 1996 Don MacMonagle.
PROTEST:Ivan Yates recalls the disturbance which took place at the EU summit in Kerry during theIrish presidency in 1996 when farmers breached Garda security and attempted to storm the meeting ofEU farm ministers and Commisson representatives in Killarney. Photo: Don MacMonagle.

Ken Whelan

Meeting Ivan Yates in the Westbury Hotel off Dublin's Grafton St for a coffee and a chat about the changes on the farming scene since he was in the hot seat at Agriculture House in the mid-1990s, I arrive to find him talking to his literary agent about the publication of an autobiography next autumn.

It's a fascinating but one- sided conversation for me, so I drop the earwigging and leaf through a copy of the Racing Post, which some kind and optimistic soul has left behind. I make a mental note of the three horses marked on the day's card.

"The biography is out in the autumn. Around 110,000 words had to be edited from 170,000 words,'' he says with the pained expression of a man who is on personal terms with every one of the words.

Interesting Ivan, but how about a few agri-words on the changes you have seen since you left Ag House?

The changes in the agri scene since the BSE crisis to the great expectation of a 'white gold future' for Irish dairy farmers when the EU abolishes milk quotas next year?

"Everything changes and nothing changes,'' he replies and just as I am expecting a short parlay, Yates warms to the task and he is off in a hack canter.

"The one thing that has changed on the farming scene since my time as minister is the waning influence agri-politics has in voting and lobbying terms," he exclaims.

"Back when I was minister, farmers had an influence on what politicians decided in Leinster House. What the farming communities and farming organisations had to say was taken seriously by politicians.

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"With the IFA and ICMSA, it was always a case of farmers having a placard in one hand and a vote in the other. So they had real influence.''

In this context he nervously remembers the near riot which occurred in Kerry at the EU summit during the Irish presidency in 1996 when protesting farmers broke through the Garda cordon around the summit hotel outside Killarney and raced to face down the EU Commission.

Scary

"That was scary. The farmers had spent the whole day protesting outside the hotel and then suddenly all hell broke loose. They broke through the cordon and stormed the summit.

"I remember the wife of the British minister for agriculture thinking she was witnessing some kind of revenge for the BSE crisis which had originally started in Britain.

"It looked ugly, but in fairness to the farmers, it didn't take much to break through the barriers because to be quite frank about it, the Garda security wasn't adequate to control the number of farmers who had gathered," Yates remembers.

"But that wouldn't happen today. Put it this way, if the Government wanted to restart the Social Partnership model in the economy, they could do so without consulting the farm organisations.

"The influence of the farm organisations is withering and even the IFA doesn't know whether it represents the big farmers or the farmers in disadvantaged areas,'' Yates says matter of factly.

Yates puts this decline in clout down to the ageing profile of farmers and growing urbanisation in Ireland.

"There will be another half million living in our cities and towns over the next two decades," he points out.

In hindsight, Yates reckons the two disasters he faced as minister for agriculture – the BSE crisis and the need to tackle an ineffective bovine TB eradication scheme – laid the foundations of our unquestioned national reputation as an international food producer.

He is completely dismissive of the TB eradication scheme he inherited, saying it was a total waste of money and nothing but a glorified ATM for vets.

"Tens of millions were wasted every year, but when we abolished the scheme and we tackled the problem by implementing new veterinary and animal health protocols, the warnings from the vets that TB would flourish within the national herd never came to pass," Yates says, shaking his head.

Then the BSE crisis made it imperative that bone meal and offals were eliminated from the animal food chain; though Yates admits it took longer than anticipated to destroy the nationwide stockpiles of these feeds.

"Just as you thought all the bone meal in the country was destroyed, another stash would be discovered.

"I was in and out of the Cabinet on a regular basis looking for more money to destroy the latest stockpile of bone meal that was found and my colleagues were getting pretty tired of it, but we eventually got on top of the problem," he explains.

Without the introduction of these vital disease prevention measures, there would be no Harvest 2020 programme today and no Irish reputation as a centre of excellence in agriculture, he maintains.

Restrictions

Yates' time at Ag House was literally the opposite of what is happening in agriculture today. His tenure as minister saw all sorts of EU restrictions on agri-production – through setaside quotas and general production restrictions. There was no business-like expansion in agriculture back then.

He delights in the opportunities which his successor, Simon Coveney, enjoys today.

"It's great to see the national dairy herd dramatically increasing in size and the emphasis on grassland production. That's what we are good at," he points out.

But he says it is noticeable that the "Glanbias and Kerrys'' are now looking abroad to maximise investment returns for their shareholders.

"Ireland is of less significance today for the PLCs because they are looking abroad to improve the share price returns to their shareholders,'' he says in a 'just saying' sort of way.

Yates is particularly worried about the exchequer cutbacks at Teagasc – an organisation which he sees as crucial to future any expansion in Irish agriculture.

"The cutbacks are affecting the organisation, especially in terms of personnel, and we need a top-class research and educational organisation to deal with agriculture – especially now.''

The former minister is sanguine about the current row between the beef farmers and those he likes to describe as the beef oligarchs.

"There is a history of mistrust there and you always hear the rumours about price rigging and market manipulation. Personally, I think a look should be taken at how the supermarkets and multiples are affecting the market,'' he maintains.

Yates brightens up when the flourishing forestry sector is mentioned.

"I introduced a forestry scheme when I was minister that's now nearing maturing. It was dismissed at the time as a scheme for auld fellas," he recalls.

"And I was ballyragged every time I made a speech about the scheme. Look at forestry today and the contribution it is making to the economy.''

And he brightens up even more when he recalls how Bord Bia, an embryo outfit he inherited from his predecessor, Joe Walsh, has thrived over the past decade.

So, to sum up, I suggest to Ivan that there have been big changes on the farming scene over the past 17 years.

Early starts

"Well, yes, I suppose. But I am still working the same hours. When I was in Ag House, I was in the office at 5.30am each morning and I probably frightened the cleaners and porters who worked there at the time.

"Certainly the civil servants always wondered about the early starts. Now I'm at Newstalk and I have to be at the station to read the research briefs at what time – you guessed it – 5.30am."

And with that Ivan was off, glad-handing three or four random people who waylay him for a chat.

Next stop the biography in September – launch details to be circulated later. Oh and by the way, those three marked horses won – a short-priced winning treble.

That's certainly a change.

Happy days.

Book will lift the lid on yates' dealings with AIB

The collapse of Celtic Bookmakers and the protracted and fruitless attempts to negotiate a settlement with the company's bank AIB will be "comprehensively dealt with'' in Ivan Yates' upcoming autobiography, he told the Farming Independent this week.

The book, entitled 'Full On' will be on the bookshelves in the autumn.

Celtic Bookmakers was a small chain of betting shops in counties Wicklow and Wexford which was run by Yates' wife, Deirdre, while he was pursuing his political career in the Dáil during the 1980s and for most of the 1990s.

When Yates left politics after the FG leadership heave against John Bruton in 2001, which saw Michael Noonan become party leader, he concentrated on his business interests and spearheaded ambitious expansion plans for the bookmaking concern.

With neither the company nor family having any borrowings to speak of, and with the Celtic Tiger in full roar, financing the expansion was relatively easy given the frenzy of lending being approved by the banks at the time.

Soon Celtic had grown from its modest Wicklow/Wexford base to a chain comprising 63 betting outlets nationwide and in Wales.

Turnover

At its height in 2007, Celtic Bookmakers had a turnover in excess of €200m and employed some 340 people, but when the Irish economy collapsed, Yates was left holding personally underwritten company liabilities of €6m to AIB. He also faced a severe revenue slump within the betting industry itself.

Yates' biography will lift the lid on how his attempts to restructure Celtic Bookmakers' loans and placate AIB failed despite numerous settlement offers.

The loan restructuring offers – up to 60c in the euro – were generous when compared to what the entire banking system achieved once the true extent of the economic collapse fuelled by their lending became apparent.

Celtic Bookmakers was subsequently put into receivership, with close to 40 of the betting outlets sold on and some 200 of Celtic's former employees retaining their jobs.

Yates himself went to Wales in August 2012 to progress his bankruptcy under the more enlightened British bankruptcy laws and is now fully discharged from bankruptcy with no restrictions.

He takes full personal responsibility for his participation in boom-time Ireland, but will recount the personal trauma he and his family, including his 82-year-old mother , had to endure during AIB's failed attempt to have him declared bankrupt in the Irish courts.

The lessons learned and the hurt inflicted by failed banks on enterprises like Celtic Bookmakers during the collapse of the Celtic Tiger is sure to make 'Full On' a riveting read.

But despite Yates' naturally helpful personality, he is staying schtum on the details until the book is published in September.

Business is business after all and Yates gives the impression the same applies to unfinished business.

Indo Farming


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