Thursday 5 December 2019

A courteous gentleman and winner of so many big battles

Joe Walsh at the Cheltenham Festival in 2012
Joe Walsh at the Cheltenham Festival in 2012
John Downing

John Downing

WHEN the phoney Celtic Tiger economy was raging, and anyone still tilling the soil was seen by some as a mug, Joe Walsh was the voice of reason.

The West Cork son of the soil believed in Irish farming and he never lost sight of its importance to the Irish economy and its social relevance to the Irish people. 'Big Joe' was a cosmopolitan country man, at home at a point-to-point race meeting, or in EU conference rooms in Brussels and Luxembourg.

He was a fixture at EU farm ministers' meetings, and by the time he stood down in summer 2007 he was among the most senior of the EU Agriculture Ministers. His assessments were respected by his counterparts, particularly the big power brokers from France and Germany.

Joe Walsh was an old-school, courteous countryman with innate good manners. But his political life was replete with battles from which he rarely shrank, and his toughness was also renowned.

News of his sad passing yesterday was greeted with recognition of his pivotal leadership role in 2001 in ensuring the dreaded foot and mouth disease did not spread across the country.

At the time, he was surrounded by a crack team of officials, and he took their advice, but he also provided invaluable front-of-house leadership which helped carry the day.

But so much of Joe Walsh's political life was about battles.

He was first elected to the Dail in 1977 and his talent as a qualified dairy scientist and knowledge of farming tipped him for promotion from very early on.

But he was among those who disapproved of Charles Haughey and voted against his leadership - joining the "Club of 22" who wanted shot of him.

Despite this, he managed to prosper, making his mark as junior minister for food, and later during two long stints as Agriculture Minister.

Locally, in the volatile constituency of Cork South West, he saw off several internal Fianna Fail opponents in some rather gutsy battles. Apart from one slight glitch in 1981/82, he held his seat there for 30 years.

In Brussels, he was in the van of several big EU negotiations on farm funding.

He fought Ireland's corner with skill and tenacity but also had many major spats with the farm unions IFA and ICMSA over what they said was a lack of militancy.

It is not often appreciated that he was a shrewd politician beyond farming. He played an important role in the 1989 Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat coalition negotiations.

In November 1992, after Albert Reynolds' Fianna Fail got a serious election drubbing, he was among the few to suggest coalition with Labour.

He drew on his experience in coalition talks with the Progressive Democrats and suggested Fianna Fail frame its own detailed proposals before starting dialogue with Labour.

After retirement from Dail politics, he was involved in Irish racing and was also a bank director. He will be mourned by colleagues on all sides.

Irish Independent

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