Murphy chronicles the politics of farming

Former ICMSA chief talks about his years at the coalface

Donal Murphy at home with his wife Agatha
Donal Murphy at home with his wife Agatha

Martin Ryan

There are few more qualified to chronicle the 'politics' of farming over the decades from their own experience than Donal Murphy.

The Adare native retired 15 years ago after almost three decades as chief executive of the ICMSA - the country's second largest farming organisation - which defined him as the longest holder of the office since its foundation 65 years ago.

Between 1971 and 2000 he was involved in negotiations on behalf of the farming community with seven Taoisigh, and 10 agriculture ministers while serving under seven presidents of the ICMSA.

He is now enjoying an active retirement but took time out to speak to me at his home on the Limerick-Tipperary border reflecting on his years at the coalface of farming 'politics' which effected the industry both inside and outside the farm gate.

Coming to the ICMSA HQ based at Limerick after eight years as farm manager of the UCD farms at Celbridge and Glasnevin he was well qualified in the practicalities of farming.

However, nothing of the everyday task of running a modern UCD farm could have adequately conditioned him for the intricacies of lobbying for the sector with the state's top politicians which was to follow for the next 29 years.

His return to his native birthplace coincided with the conclusion of negotiations for Ireland's entry into the EEC as transitional members in 1973.

"The euphoria among the farmers at the time was wonderful. After years tied to the British market, the freedom to produce was gripping them.

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Conditions on most of the farms were relatively primitive. Farmers were just about getting up off their knees," he remembered.

"In truth I believe that the expectations on the EEC were oversold to farmers. Commissioner [Sicco] Mansholt gave farmers the impression that they could continue to produce more with supports which proved to be entirely wrong. It was never possible, but the farmers believed it. They were misled," he said.

"He promised a base price and if markets did not reach it there was a mechanism to support it - it was called intervention - but it wasn't realised that producers can't buck the market forever with produce that there is no market for," he emphasised reflecting that the first real shock came in 1974-75 with the collapse of the market for beef.

Electricity had only come to farms through the Rural Electrification Scheme about 15 years earlier and "two of the greatest innovations on farms in my time were electricity and hydraulic power with the three point linkage on the tractor".

The change that farming has undergone since in scale and modernisation has been enormous is his view.

"If a farmer had a herd of 18 cows he was regarded as a substantial dairyman. Yields were about 700-800 gallons but it was all mixed farming with the young stock kept on at least to yearlings or year and a half year old and most farmers kept anything from two to 12 sows," he said of the early 70s.

There was a saying among farmers at the time that "a cow, a sow and an acre under the plough" was the ideal mix, with most farmers also growing barley for farm feeding. The harvest threshing of the corn was a regular event on every farm in the autumn and all farmers helped each other.

"A farmer was lucky to be making IR£100 a year per cow. If he had an income of £1,400 from a herd of 14 cows he was regarded as being very well off. He was looked upon as a top farmer," said Donal with a smile.

Both the ICMSA, formed in 1950, and NFA founded five years later were active in representing farmers toward developing their farms and improving incomes with relations between them relatively good even though they often differed on policy issues.

"There was no 'politics' whatsoever in the organisations in the early years and none for a long time. They were genuine people with a real interest in trying to make conditions and incomes better for farmers.

That was their only objective" he explained.

"And there was no politics between farmers and the co-ops. They gave their honest opinion. There was a wonderful relationship there at that time - real honesty. I believe that all that changed when the members went out to canvass votes for positions and it was that politicised the organisations - and not for the better," he stressed.

"Unfortunately in recent times positions in organisations have become a stepping stone to party politics - that's a bad thing. It's damaging the image of the farm organisations when farmers see some members using the organisation like that," he said.

"Politics should be kept out of organisations in my view. The canvassing for elections has now become a very expensive exercise. It is copying too much what happens in the Dáil and farm organisations should never have allowed it to go that way.

"I wish it was got rid of ­- but how I don't know. It would be excellent if there was an agreement that outgoing officers would not seek a position in party politics for at least five years after leaving office in a farm organisation. It is leading to mistrust of the officers among farmers - are they chasing a political future or representing the genuine interest."

Looking into the future he said "What will happen - and I hope that I am wrong - is that the organisations will become corrupt. The whole thing has become very big business and that is not good for the farm organisations and the farmers that they represent." The officers of the organisations were in constant communications with the politicians as a lobby group on farming issues.

Donal recalls many meetings with Taoisigh, Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charlie Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern and reflects that "they were all different - had a different approach".

Charlie Haughey impressed him. "A meeting with Charlie Haughey was 70 minutes, but within a week he would have replied to our submission. He was extremely efficient and he knew the farming scene."

Mark Clinton, Jim Gibbons, Ray McSharry, Alan Dukes, Brian Lenihan, Austin Deasy, Michael O'Kennedy, Michael Woods, Joe Walsh, and Ivan Yates held the agriculture portfolio over the three decades.

"The man who really worked very hard to get things right for farming was Ivan Yates. He was always available, and an extremely hard worker. He brought about a lot of reform among the administration in Agriculture House too," he said.

And of the men who held the presidency of ICMSA. "Jimmy O'Keeffe was a great leader. The next best president, I believe, was Con Scully - although he only served for one year."

Farming then and now

The Milk Quota

The transition years 1973-78 following Ireland's accession to the EEC brought about a lot of changes in development on farms and more prosperity for farming families.

The rapid expansion in dairy farming led to product surplus and a 'butter mountain'. Then the milk quota was introduced in the mid 1980s to cap production.

Donal Murphy said: "I think a great mistake was made by not realising that milk quota was inevitable at the time... In the short term the quota regime was good, but we should have been actively trying to get agreement on a 'B' quota producing 2-5pc above the quota." He added: "Allowing farmers to increase production annually by 5-10pc under the 'B' quota would have been a safety valve instead of fining producers." He pointed out that New Zealand, with no limit on production, had free advantageous access to Asia and Eastern Europe.

Taxation for Farmers

The extension of income tax to all farmers, which came in the 1980s, was a period of a lot of debate and conflict. Donal was at the coalface of the discussions in which the ICMSA played an active role along with other farm organisations.

"Taxation for farmers was inevitable, but I still believe that mistakes were made," he said.

"Farmers have to have the highest level of capital of any to earn a euro. Industry will not operate on a margin of less than 4-5pc as a minimum return on capital. Applying the same system of taxation to farming has not served us well," he said. Comparing farmers to PAYE workers was "a hell of a political mistake", he added.

Young Farmers - A Future

The role which Macra na Feirme has played in Irish farming has never been adequately recognised according to Donal.

Without the training which the young farmer movement provided over its 71 years the senior farm organisations would be much the poorer.

"The young people are wonderful and they have the best of training."

But he regretted to suggest: "I couldn't advise a young man to take up farming today unless he is taking over a well established unit.".

He believes that the future must have a better relationship between the producer and processor.

"It has to come for the development of the sector," he added.

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