Friday 6 December 2019

Obituary: Former Fianna Fail minister Joe Walsh

The proud Corkman and former Agriculture Minister shaped the development of the Irish agri-food sector and fought tirelessly for rural Ireland's rights, writes John O'Donoghue

Former Minister Joe Walsh (71) died on November 8 following a short illness.
Former Minister Joe Walsh (71) died on November 8 following a short illness.

"You told me the plough was immortal!

O green-life-conquering plough!

Your mandril strained, your coulter blunted

In the smooth lea-field of my brow."

- Patrick Kavanagh

Some time before the West Cork horse, Newmill, won the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2006, Joe Walsh exhorted me to back it at 33/1. Having read the form book, I said to him "I can't see it, Joe". As the price contracted and the great day approached, he advised me again and again to back the horse and I kept saying "I can't see it, Joe". When Newmill came up the Cheltenham hill to claim the title, Joe turned to me and said "Can you see it now, John?" and I replied "I can see it now, Joe".

Joe Walsh was born on May Day, 1943 at Ballineen, Co. Cork into a staunch Fianna Fáil and farming family. The raw wounds left by the Civil War were still open. The difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would have been ingrained in him. "Them that know don't need to ask and them that ask don't need to know".

In as much as he would later shape the development of the Irish agri-food sector, he was moulded by the land of his youth. A Corkman first and last, he was educated at St. Finbarr's College, Cork and later University College Cork, where he was conferred with a degree in Dairy Science in 1970.

He established the first Fianna Fáil Cumann in the University in the 1960s. George Colley came to address the first meeting and politics captured the pioneering young Corkman's heart. Not long afterwards, a young woman name Marie Donegan also captured his heart and they went on to have five wonderful children together.

Joe began his career as a researcher in the National Dairy research centre near Moorepark in Fermoy, before becoming Managing Director of Strand Dairies in Clonakilty, Co. Cork.

Elected as a member of Cork County Council in 1974, he remained on the Council until the 1991 local elections. He was elected to Dáil Eireann as a TD for Cork South-West on his first attempt in the Jack Lynch landslide of 1977. He lost his seat in the 1981 election but was elected as a Senator and returned to the Dáil at the February 1982 election, where he remained until his retirement in 2007.

Joe Walsh's Ministerial career began in 1987 when he was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture & Food by Taoiseach Charles Haughey. It was around this time that I began to forge a close friendship with this giant of a man from Clonakilty which lasted until the day he died. He impressed me then as a man of broad vision who had a deep empathy with and understanding of rural Ireland and its increasingly isolated population.

In 1992, when Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach, Joe was appointed to the cabinet as Minister for Agriculture & Food where he remained until December of 1994. When Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1997, he was again appointed Minister for Agriculture & Food in Bertie Ahern's Government and remained in that office until September of 2004.

Joe was deeply committed to the development of the Irish food industry and described the establishment of An Bord Bia as his greatest achievement.

Whilst this is undoubtedly true, his contributions to the 1992 McSharry CAP Reform, the Agenda 2000 Reform and the 2003 Fischler Reform represent an extremely important component of his legacy to rural Ireland. He devoted much of his energy to the development of the Irish Bloodstock industry where he is revered as one of its great champions. He is, however, best remembered for his calm and assured leadership during the Foot and Mouth Crisis of 2001.

The singular achievements of the longest-serving and most successful Agriculture Minister in the EU were recognised by the French government and the King of Spain who awarded him the Legion d'Honneur and the Grand Cross of the Agricultural Order of Merit for distinguished service to agriculture, respectively.

But awards rested lightly on the big man's shoulders. His natural humility and affinity with farming men and women insulated him against any delusions of grandeur. I was with him on many occasions when members of the public congratulated and thanked him for saving the country from the curse of Foot and Mouth. He cherished those moments because the kind words were spoken by those whom he most respected.

He will be remembered by his wife and family as a loving husband and wonderful father.

Having had the privilege of knowing him for almost three decades, I will remember him as a man of conviction. In a plastic age of duplication and plagiarism, he was the real deal.

He neither pandered to populism nor capitulated to cranks. He believed that a man who stood for nothing would fall for anything. And Joe Walsh stood for something. He was a traditional Irish Catholic who was blessed with a deep faith and he was proud of it until the end.

He was an unreconstructed West-Cork republican of the old school who believed that the Provisional IRA had set back the cause of Irish unification by generations. He believed in the right of rural people to work and live in their own place and spent much of his life fighting for it.

The big man from West Cork, with the soft spoken voice and the manners of a palace courtier, possessed one of the keenest political minds of his generation. Allied to this, he had a wonderful personal charm, humour and natural reticence which made him a formidable politician.

And so it is that whenever the history of the Irish agri-food and equine sectors are written or discussed, the shadow of Joe Walsh will loom large. For nobody did as much as he did to make them a world force and, in truth, perhaps nobody else could have.

It occurs to me that we rarely measure a man's true worth in his lifetime. We never assess his contribution honestly. It is as if we are afraid to see and say the obvious. But we can see it now, Joe.

May the fertile soil of Alieohill, the land of his birth, rest lightly on his gentle soul and may Ireland never forget this son of the soil, this great son of West Cork.

- John O'Donoghue is a Fianna Fail politician who served as Ceann Comhairle (2007-2009), Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism (2002-2007) and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (1997-2002).

Sunday Independent

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