Sunday 25 August 2019

A president who lost sight of how the association was seen from outside

Eddie Downey
Eddie Downey
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The spin machine in the IFA tried to soften the blow, but the reality is that Eddie Downey is unlikely to ever lead the IFA again.

The drip-drip of news about the gold-plated packages on offer within the hierarchy of the IFA has resulted in two casualties so far - the president and the general secretary.

The silence of good men is said to be all that is required for bad things to flourish, and the top brass in the IFA are now reaping the havoc from their persistent silence in recent years, while the canaries, such as the former IFA economist Con Lucey and council member Derek Deane, were singing in the mine.

It's the biggest scandal to ever engulf the lobby group, but it is also a terrible blow to Mr Downey, a likeable man who genuinely believed in what he was doing.

However, somewhere along the line Mr Downey seems to have lost sight of what the IFA HQ and its incumbents look like from the outside, and started to believe the spin that the organisation leverages so well at government level.

Even this week, as he insisted that he was "shocked" by the amount the IFA was paying its general secretary, farmers were shaking their heads in disbelief, having discovered that he was one of two people granted 'oversight' of the €535,000 package for the last two years.

For Mr Downey, he is now likely to face the same cold turkey that every IFA ex-president endures - the silent mobile, no daily schedule of meetings to attend or press briefings to give.

However, there's every chance the Meath farmer will be able to utilise his skills and network to good effect, as the last IFA president from Meath demonstrated. Tom Clinton stepped down in the late 1980s after becoming embroiled in difficulties with a milk quota lease. But he has since gone on to build a farming empire in Ireland, New Zealand and the US.

Mr Downey has built up a profitable poultry breeding business on his 140-acre farm and is also planning a significant expansion of his suckler beef enterprise.

The organisation that he will leave behind has been shaken to the core by the revelations of the last seven days. Its success in swelling both membership and balance sheets over recent decades, when farming numbers were dwindling, led to a degree of confidence that bordered on arrogance towards those who questioned how it operated.

Leveraging its much trumpeted 88,000 membership base, HQ staff enjoyed the kind of access to the corridors of power that made other lobbyists green with envy. It has one of the healthiest balance sheets in the country, with assets of at least €19m, allowing it to face down any target, including the beef processors in 2000 when the High Court imposed £500,000-a-day fines on the IFA for blockading the beef plants.

It was this power that farmers rightly took great pride in. But that power was rooted in an unquestioning trust by farmers in their leadership. That trust was blown to smithereens this week. Farmers were repeatedly assured there was nothing to worry about in relation to the pay their leaders were sanctioning for themselves. No amount of spin will fix that.

The thousands of voluntary hours that IFA members devote to organising meetings and protests are now in jeopardy. In the coming days farmers will decide if they want to continue paying the subs and levies that generate millions for the IFA. The organisation is probably better placed than any to weather a financial hit, but a loss of membership would be a real long-term blow to its power.

Irish Independent

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