Saturday 24 August 2019

Darragh McCullough: In the wake of this fiasco, bigger issues need to be addressed in the IFA

Eddie Downey
Eddie Downey
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Does more than the structures and the personnel at the top of the IFA need to change?

This is a question that I'm hearing more and more over the last number of days as IFA members digest the bombshells that have been dropping daily this week.

Most of the focus until now has been on the levels of pay and who was to blame for setting them. This will dominate the review that the IFA's former chief economist Con Lucey is charged with delivering over the next three weeks.

But when the dust settles on this, there may be a bigger, deeper issue still to tackle - the culture within the IFA's headquarters at Bluebell.

The reason that this week's revelations were so explosive was partly because the lobby group had worked so hard to cover up the truth.

Repeated requests from this paper for information on pay were swatted away. Meanwhile, Eddie Downey claimed just two weeks ago at an IFA function in Limerick that suggestions that Pat Smith's pay was over €400,000 were "uncorroborated" and "unsubstantiated and should be ignored".

It was part of an arrogance that pervaded the top of the organisation that was born out of management's belief that they knew best how to handle things, and grassroots should leave the important stuff to them.

Even yesterday it seemed that there was an element of that mentality alive and well in comments from the IFA deputy president Tim O'Leary on a Newstalk interview with Jonathan Healy.

Despite the fact that it was only when the Carlow chairman, Derek Deane, decided to go public with the pay scandals that the issue came to light, Mr O'Leary agreed that Mr Deane's actions were hasty, resulting in unnecessary damage to the lobby group.

"We were working the system, others were working outside the system, and we end up with this debacle," he said.

Many farmers and even their mid-ranking leaders also encountered a cold shoulder when they dared to step outside the system and question official policy.

This was most evident when the beef protest - that had been demanded by grassroots for months - ended almost before it got going last year.

But poultry farmers and malting barley growers also believed that their organisation was too willing to roll over on demands from dominant purchasers.

Perhaps even more crucially, internal debate on how the €1.2bn CAP pot should be divvied up among smaller farmers in the west was almost entirely absent during the most recent CAP reforms.

A number of splinter groups evolved from the vacuums created by this approach, most notably a new hill farmers association.

The IFA likes to tout its membership tally of 88,000, because this is how it garners so much power in its lobbying activities.

But the reality is that only one-third of those came out to vote in the last presidential election.

Worse still, this represented a 14pc decline in voter turnout compared to the previous election, with the drop double that in the west where Ireland's more marginal farmers dominate.

The IFA's motto is 'strength in unity'. But unity by force creates nothing more than a facade, and that facade will crumble fast if this fiasco does not kick off a major cultural change.

Irish Independent

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