Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

What will be Coveney's legacy? Here's how past ministers fared

John Shirley

I listened to Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney last week for the first time. Certainly he talks the talk. Also he has a feel for, and knowledge of, commercial farming. But will the Corkman be an effective minister and what will be his legacy to Irish farming? Will he run his Department or will the Department manipulate him? Only time will tell if he has the strength of character and that hard edge to make a difference.

Then again, how many ministers for Agriculture in the past have made a difference?

To be fair, different ministers encountered different challenges and operated with different resources.

I'm told that James Dillon was an excellent minister combining vision with action at a time of scarce resources in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Charles J Haughey (FF)

Charles J Haughey (1964-66) was the first minister who impacted on my consciousness. I recall in October 1966 visiting my father when he was on 24-hour picket duty for the IFA outside Government offices on Merrion Square.

Haughey (probably on Taoiseach Sean Lemass's orders) refused to meet an IFA delegation despite the farmers having marched from every corner of Ireland.

He aimed to please and introduced a subsidy on live cattle exports to Britain. He was progressive in that he imported Charolais cattle for the first time. He was his own boss but looked after number one first. Score: 5.5 out of 10

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Neil Blaney (FF)

Hostility between Government and farmers reached a peak with Haughey's successor, Neil Blaney (1966-70). Blaney, with his republican and small farmer sympathies, saw protesting farmers jailed during his watch. This was IFA's best recruiting asset and helped put the organisation on the map.

A man of intellect, Blaney ran his department with a strong hand. He further angered IFA with his two-tier milk price policy. At the time there were about 80,000 dairy farmers and creamery milk was subsidised by the State. The case for paying a higher price for smaller volume was socially arguable. Score: 5.5

Jim Gibbons (FF)

Jim Gibbons (1970-73 and 77-79) was at the helm for two terms in the early and late 70s. Owner of a large farm in Kilkenny, he was very bright. He got on well generally with farmers but could be a bitter opponent if ruffled. A Francophile, he managed to secure an exclusive bilateral deal to get access for Irish lamb into France pre a common EU sheep policy. Score: 6

Mark Clinton (FG)

Clean-cut Mark Clinton (1973-77) came to the helm with refreshing vigour just when we joined the EU. Was hit early on with the 1974 cattle price collapse. He moved to help farmers through EU intervention buying and subsidy but made a boo-boo by paying a special slaughter premium direct to already profit-bloated beef plants and butchers rather than directly to the herd owners.

This was the time of EU accession and Green Pound annual price lifts which quickly solved the 1974 cattle crisis, bringing a golden era for farmers. Clinton's finest moment was when he forced an EU Council of Farm Ministers meeting to treat Ireland as separate from Britain. Clinton failed to implement lay TB testing but still earns respect for effort and attitude. Score: 6.5

Ray MacSharry (FF)

I give my highest score to Ray MacSharry (1979-81), not so much for his term as farm minister, but for his legacy as EU farm commissioner. Tough, self-educated and focused, MacSharry brought the cattle-dealing skills, learned on the Sligo circuit, to bear at the highest level in the EU and WTO, and prevailed. By securing the 22-month beef premium and extensification, Mac has added maybe €400m a year to the Irish Single Farm Payment. Score: 8

Alan Dukes (FG) and Brian Lenihan Snr (FF)

MacSharry was followed by two short-term post holders Alan Dukes (June 81 to March 82) and Brian Lenihan senior (March 82 to Dec 82). Dukes was highly intellectual, and strong on EU affairs but very much a civil servant in his approach. Likeable Lenihan promised a lot. We'll be kind to both and deem their pitch time too short to allocate marks.

The same applies to Michael Woods, (FF) November 1991 to February 1992, although he got items at the Cabinet table in his short tenure.

Austin Deasy (FG)

The big challenge of Fine Gael's Austin Deasy (1983-1987) was to maximise Ireland's deal when EU Milk Quotas were introduced in 1983. A combination of Deasy's stubbornness and durability, Department secretary Jimmy O'Mahony's acumen and Taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald's lobbying, gave Ireland a 4pc milk quota increase while most of the EU received milk cutbacks.

However, while other countries retained milk quota for developing farmers, Ireland kept nothing. Development farmers later challenged and won on this issue in the courts. Score: 3

Michael O'Kennedy (FF)

Michael O'Kennedy (1987-1991) was likeable and decent. As a barrister he could argue for either side and often seemed to be doing just that. Was at his best when representing Ireland abroad, but Agriculture wasn't his natural home. His Taoiseach, Haughey, was often unkind to Kennedy. Score: 4

Joe Walsh (FF)

Joe Walsh (1992-1994 and 1997-2004) was the State's longest-serving farm minister. Genial and laid back, Joe liked his horse racing. The Cork man generally left matters to his civil servants but was able and effective when energised and was a heavyweight within Cabinet.

Gained major kudos for his handling of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak but faster action by his officials should have prevented the outbreak. Score: 6.5

Ivan Yates (FG)

Ivan Yates (1994-97) was extremely bright and ambitious. He worked his butt off to make a difference as a very young minister. Took on the civil service monster but was eventually shafted by it and I believe this was a factor in his leaving politics. Capably handled severe BSE challenges and had an enlightened approach to farm organisations. Score: 7

Mary Coughlan (FF)

Mary Coughlan (2004-2008) occupied the post during a period of budgetary plenty. Her earthy approach was popular with some farmers. She ensured that farming got a slice of the Partnership cake through the Farm Waste Management grants and the Suckler Welfare Scheme. She presided over the demise of the Irish sugar industry. Coughlan annoyed the IFA by bringing the ICSA into Partnership talks. Score: 5

Brendan Smith (FF)

Brendan Smith (2008-2011) gets good marks for graft, sincerity and dedication to his office, but held the post at a time of cutbacks to REPS et al.

Initially, the Cavan man dealt well with the 2008 pork crisis but issues remain for his successor to handle.

Often had to bat on difficult issues for the Government. Left office with his reputation intact and was re-elected, unlike a lot of his fellow Cabinet ministers. Score: 5

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