Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

'Farmers need a strong, unified and effective IFA like never before'

An IFA-organised protest by grain farmers outside Glanbia headquarters in Kilkenny last month
An IFA-organised protest by grain farmers outside Glanbia headquarters in Kilkenny last month

Stephen O'Byrnes

Last January, in the National Convention Centre, the IFA put on a display of pomp and power. It was celebrating its 60th anniversary and the overwhelming message emanating from this superbly organised event was what a powerful organisation it had now become.

EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, various Government Ministers and captains of every industrial sector in the land, were there to laud the association. And rightly so.

Being there, one got a real sense of the IFA's power and influence, and why any minister, of any government, would tangle with this great national organisation at his or her peril.

Yet, the seeds of the controversy that has left the IFA in organisational disarray, had already been sown.

It was in August last year that Con Lucey wrote to senior officers of the association explaining why he was "resigning forthwith" as chairman of its Audit Committee (AC), alleging "unacceptable interference" by then chief executive Pat Smith.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, and the meltdown of the past fortnight, the lack of response by Eddie Downey and the other senior officers to Mr Lucey's letter was baffling. Yet, they have insisted they were working hard behind the scenes within the rules of the organisation to deal with issues.

So it lay there, like a ticking time-bomb, and even when four county chairmen of the association put forward a motion of no confidence in Mr Smith last January, a counter-motion expressing confidence in Smith was carried by a majority of the National Council.

Of course, every person in any position of leadership with the IFA is now clinging to Con Lucey like a child clings to its comfort blanket.

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Con has finally got their full attention, and he represents the best hope of the IFA navigating a resolution to at least some of the current mess.

However, although he has given outstanding service, and his stance last year of resigning as Chairman of the Audit Committee is a mark of the man, I'm sure even he would not regard himself as Superman.

Because it increasingly looks a job for Superman to resolve all the issues bubbling up and now confronting the IFA.

So what has to be done? It must first remember that it depends primarily on its members' subs and levies to pay its way, and their support for its moral authority and political heft.

Therefore, the wage rates, especially at the very top levels need to be adjusted downwards, while still being at a level which will ensure high quality personnel.


It seems eminently sensible therefore to revert to the former benchmarking of the chief executive salary to that of a Departmental secretary general, and the president's payment in office to that of a Junior Minister. Furthermore, the association's governance rules, as they relate to openness, transparency and accountability in particular, need to be clearly set out.

Con Lucey certainly has the skill-set and experience to address those issues.

But there is an awful lot of other messy stuff around that won't be as easily resolved. What will happen now with the Pat Smith severance package for instance?

Mr Smith clearly wants the remuneration package of his predecessor, Michael Berkery, brought into the frame, while the latter has warned the association not to release his data as it is covered by a confidentiality agreement.

I also find it hard to see, for instance, how any executive officer who was addressed by Con Lucey's August 2014 letter, and did not respond then, can be a credible candidate now.

Meanwhile, faced with paying a superlevy bill of €70m, the collapse in the milk price, and the shutting off of the Russian export market, farmers need a strong, united and effective IFA like never before.

Let's hope the current leadership ensures there is a clean break with the mistakes of the past, and that no unfinished business is left around to dog the association further in the weeks and months ahead.

Stephen O'Byrnes is director of MKC Communications, a former agricultural journalist and former PD party Government press secretary

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