Thursday 24 October 2019

Angus bids for the top IFA spot

Reporter David Medcalf found IFA presidential candidate and former international rower Angus Woods enthusiastic, energetic and articulate on the eve of a gruelling campaign

Angus Woods on the farm. Picture: Finbarr O'Rourke
Angus Woods on the farm. Picture: Finbarr O'Rourke

Angus Woods was born in 1971, which makes him by far the youngest of the candidates campaigning to become the next president of the Irish Farmers Association.

His grandmother Florrie Woods was living in the main farmhouse at Ballinabarney near Wicklow at the time that he was born. But within three years, Angus's parents Neale and Hazel switched accommodation with Florrie, bringing their young family to the heart of the farm.

So it was that Angus grew up there with older sister Sonia, younger sister Olivia and brother Graham. Hazel, by the way, hails originally from Redcross, though her family comes originally from Carlow.

As a boy, young Angus played rugby with the local club, often walking the two miles to the grounds in Ashtown Lane on Saturday mornings.

Though the town was not far away, growing up was essentially rural: 'We knew the sound of everyone's car that went past the gate. We could be sitting in the house and we knew the sound of the neighbour's tractor. I learned how to ride my bike on that road - and I would not walk on it now, let alone let my daughter out to ride her bike on it.'

He attended secondary school in Dublin at King's Hospital (the alma mater of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar) where rugby was the principal sport.

However, he also took up rowing on the Liffey, earning himself selection for the 1989 junior World Championships while still in sixth year.

So he went to Hungary, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, racing against the likes of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, decaying stalwarts of the Soviet bloc.

He was keen from an early age to work on the farm, winning an IFA scholarship to the agricultural college at Gurteen after leaving school.

All four siblings had worked on the farm growing up and Graham remains just a phone call away whenever assistance is required, though his day job is in IT.

Their parents also continue very active in the family business and, on the morning of this newspaper interview, they were away bringing lambs to the factory at Camolin.

Wife Aileen (née Johnston) is an artist, creating wonderfully rich tapestries, and daughter Evie completes the current roll call.

The farm comprises 165 hilly acres overlooking the main Dublin to Rosslare road and back in the year 2000 another farm was leased long term, adding 125 acres where grain is grown.

Neale used to finish cattle and run a small sheep flock, while also growing grain; a mix which is now continued by his son on a larger scale featuring a flock of 450 ewes and a herd of cattle of Charolais, Aubrac and Angus breeding.

The year at agricultural college in Tipperary obliged Angus to step out of the boat but, once his studies were complete, his buddies at Neptune Rowing Club persuaded him to return and take his place in an elite eight.

Within two years he was representing Ireland at the senior World Championships where Italy were the defending gold medallists.

The boys in the green singlets were good enough to beat the all-conquering Italians at a regatta shortly before the big event in Montreal.

However, the chances of an upset on the big stage were lost in the final preparations: 'They went to Saint Moritz to train while we went to Galway, where we were blown out of it for four weeks.'

The bad weather in the west meant that they under-performed in Canada: 'We didn't have the support structures or the know-how or the finance.'

Other members of the squad decided to go full-time into the sport in a bid to ensure that there was no repeat of such a disaster while Angus was not in a position to follow suit - the farm came first.

While his former crew mates finished fourth in the 1996 Olympics and later took gold in the World Championships, he continued to compete in more modest club events and also began to work as a coach in the sport which is his enduring passion.

He is full of admiration for the current crop of rowers who have a level of expertise and talent which has propelled Ireland to the forefront, optimistic that medals will be coming our way at the Games in Tokyo next year.

He continues to go out on the river at Islandbridge every Sunday morning, though his bid for IFA leadership may disrupt the routine.

'Farming is quite a solitary life and a lot of farmers are left on their own to work all day. This farm years ago would have had more people working on it but now it's down to just the family,' he muses, 'I have always been drawn into teams. We get into the boat and focus on how we can make the boat better. All the hardship of the previous six days goes out of your head. We do need activities outside the farm gate to keep the head right. I am totally immersed in agriculture so for me to have breakfast every Sunday morning with a bunch of non-farmers who throw a different slant on it is good.'

He believes that there is a living to be made in farming, though it may be difficult for many landholders. A mixed enterprise such as his, which was the norm a couple of generations ago, is now almost unique.

Specialising has become the norm in a way which can erode the solidarity of farmers and lead to splinter groups campaigning for particular interests.

He believes that power lies in unity and the IFA continues to attract the broad range of support, with dairy, sheep and tillage operators prepared to march in solidarity with their beef producing comrades.

While sport was taking up his time, Angus was not active in the day to day business of the association for many years, though a paid up member of the Barndarrig branch from 1990.

Then in 2011 Wicklow IFA chairman James Hill rang him to say he was looking for someone to represent the county on the national livestock committee.

Never afraid of going in at the deep end, he joined the committee and was elected chairman at the end of 2015 - second only to the association's president in terms of profile.

The big issue of his time at the head has been the Mercosur economic deal between the EU and Latin America.

He was in Buenos Aires for World Trade Organisation talks, lobbying to have the often controversial agreement postponed two years ago.

He has also been elected to chair the European Commission's 'civil dialogue group' in Brussels discussing beef, sheep, poultry, pig and honey with representatives of all the relevant interests.

Over the past few years, his voluntary elected position (expenses only) has occupied four days a week of his time, spending up to 40 days a year abroad and also covering all of Ireland.

In the days before the interviews with the 'People', for example, he was in Donegal, getting to bed in Ballinabarney at 2.30 a.m.

Still he was up in time to meet Tánaiste Simon Coveney at eight o'clock that morning before heading to Mayo for a beef meeting.

He was handed the microphone there at 9.30 p.m. and took his last question shortly after midnight before driving to stay at a hotel in Limerick, with a massive round of applause still ringing in his ears.

After breakfast, he drove to Bandon in time to sit on a cattle breeding board, arriving back in Wicklow to attend a sheep forum meeting.

Now he wants the top spot, bidding to take over from Galway man Joe Healy as IFA president, in the teeth of competition from Cork, Tipperary and Cavan.

With just ten of the IFA's 950 branches, Wicklow is a challenging base from which to launch such a bid.

Alan Gillis, from the west of the county, was president 1990 to 1994 but his branch was in Kildare for administrative purposes.

'It is a young person's game and it is demanding,' reckons Angus, as he prepares to clock up many more miles between now voting day.

He has Alice Doyle from County Wexford coordinating his campaign and plenty of backing closer to home, while claiming an encouraging level of support all around the country.

His message is that farmers need to win wider public sympathy and not just be seen as a narrow interest group, while presenting himself as the man with access to the corridors of European power.

That line will be aired at more than 25 hustings debates all over the Republic as the candidates vie for the votes of the 73,000 members who will go to the polls early in December.

'You have to be disciplined, driven, motivated,' he muses on an approach to life which worked for him as a sportsman and now feeds into his role as a farm lobbyist.

Wicklow People