Ann Fitzgerald: IFA slowly restoring faith but real work just beginning

Joe Healy speaking at a protest by grain farmers in Dublin last January. Photo: Damien Eagers
Joe Healy speaking at a protest by grain farmers in Dublin last January. Photo: Damien Eagers
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

"Are ye going to see the Pope?"

I was out socially with three other women recently when, out of the blue, one blurted this out. She was greeted with silence.

After a moment, I muttered a non-committal "I don't know", one of the other women said, "I hadn't really thought about it, yet", the third, "it's not like the last time".

During Pope John Paul II's three-day visit in 1979, he was seen by 2.5 million people.

At the time, the prevailing feeling was that being Irish and Catholic still went hand in hand, as it had for generations.

But below the surface, tensions were simmering over the sense that the Church was not adapting to the changing world - one prime example being its stance on contraception.

Discontent soon turned to fury at the revelations of clerical sexual abuse, the damage being further and indefensibly compounded by the institutional Church's response.

We Irish are now very different - wealthier, better educated, more travelled, more worldly.

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I think there is an underlying sense that we are hanging in there for the Church to do something that will make us flock back to it. We don't seem to quite realise that this is not going to happen - because we have lost out trust.

When Mairéad McGuinness was editor of this publication, she once told me that, when she met someone, her instinct was to trust them. She would continue to trust, and trust. If that trust was breached, she might forgive but the relationship would never be the same.

It strikes me that the current relationship between farmers and the Irish Farmers Association is similar to that now prevailing with the Catholic Church. I do not of course equate the level of moral wrongdoing, but the key issue is the same - the loss of trust.

It is two and half years since the IFA was stunned by a pay controversy. Two months ago ensuing court cases were settled out-of-court between the IFA and former general secretary Pat Smith, which saw Mr Smith receive €1.55m for his severance claim and €350,000 in relation to his defamation claim, plus legal costs.

Given that the IFA's elected leaders have always been firstly farmers, the association has always required considerable support from professional staff.

While these were obviously being paid, the general assumption was that there was still an underlying sense of the vocational ethos on which the association was founded. When farmers felt pain, they innocently believed that those in their representative organisation were feeling it too.

The IFA didn't try to dispel that myth. In Path To Power, 60 Years Of The IFA, published in 2015, staff are thanked for their "dedicated service" and even their spouses for their "understanding" of the long hours. Members trusted the leaders to spend their money wisely so the pay disclosures came as a massive shock. It was so out of kilter with farmers' income levels.

At this remove, it is no longer shocking but, at the time, farmers felt betrayed by the secrecy.

But the good thing about this, if there can be one, is that when it came out, the association took it on the chin and set about change. When something unpalatable has to be faced up to, the sooner it's done, the better.

New president Joe Healy promised transparency and to rebuild trust. The transparency has been delivered as far as possible. As for trust, I think that members feel they are being listened to more, which is a good thing.

Another recent significant change has been the election of a number of women as county chairs. Congratulations to all. However, their election is not the destination. The real work is just beginning. Every farmer obviously recognises the merit of having strong representation but it's a chicken and egg situation. Delivery of results increases strength, but getting results requires it. The big internal challenge for the organisation is getting more younger people, both male and female, actively involved.

Externally, the IFA needs to pick its battles. While the Mercosur deal might be the big thing coming down the tracks, farmers can't relate to it. If the IFA really wants to get stuck into what's getting farmers backs up, it needs to tackle something like the vulture funds buying up farm loans.

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