Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Only a rapid return to core values can save the IFA now

Illustration: Clyde Delaney
Illustration: Clyde Delaney
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Has the time come for the IFA to go back to the drawing board and start afresh? After the shocking revelations about the running of the association, I fear there may be no other way forward.

In time, people may accept that Pat Smith was an employee of the IFA and - given his ability to negotiate on behalf of farmers - it really should have been little surprise that he was well able to negotiate on his own behalf.

But Eddie Downey was elected by farmers. He was their chosen leader. We all had the sense that the president's remuneration was enough to cover a farm manager in his absence and his out-of-pocket expenses. Other than that, we believed it was an honorary job; his vocation.

Famers also thought they were all together in this, that it was like a big family where everybody was looking out for everybody else.

Down through the decades, when the call came for protests and pickets, countless members downed tools and parked up their tractors because they felt it was their duty to support their great organisation.

The IFA has always trumpeted this voluntary ethos and the strength of its grassrooots.

In reality, it's likely the ethos within the organisation has gradually changed in line with its commercial development, while the simple trust of farmers was taken for granted.

Even in the 21st century, trust is a cornerstone of rural life.

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However, when the proverbial started to hit the fan, the IFA did what it has always done in terms of protecting the organisation. It closed ranks. instead of going for full disclosure on behalf of members.

It was then that ordinary farmers realised they were on the outside of the bubble while the inner circle were intent on carrying on pretty much regardless.

It is the implicit breach of trust that the IFA will find it hardest to recover from.

Trust is not a matter of tricks or techniques but of character and of many small actions over a long period. In the IFA's case, it was 60-years-a-building. Now it's gone.

As well as ordinary farmer members, I feel sorry for the many voluntary officers further down the ladder who spent countless hours working on behalf of the organisation while all this was going on.

I also have sympathy for Eddie Downey at a personal level.

But felt physically sick (yes, really) when I heard about how Pat Smith's severance package had apparently been agreed.

The IFA is now gearing up to challenge this package, as it is being seen as the only financial issue that can still be addressed.

However, going to court is a costly business. Is the IFA going to end up throwing good money after bad? It's also going to take time.

How many farmers will continue to pay their membership and levies?

Every new twist causes more damage to confidence in the IFA.

Pat Smith's request to have the lump sum element of his severance paid to two charities before Christmas looks like a daring bid to regain some high moral ground.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, the IFA has now moved into election mode and acting president Tim O'Leary, who has already confirmed he's a candidate, has spoken of rebuilding the organisation.

But there's no point in trying to rebuild unless the foundations are strong.

Among the suggestions currently being mooted are bringing in a new chief executive from outside the fold and that national council would go back to their respective county executives to seek a new mandate. But are fresh faces enough?

Every effort so far to draw a line in the sand have failed but the urgency of the task facing the IFA should not be under-estimated. The organisation will stand or fall on how it conducts itself over the next few months.

Indo Farming