It has never happened before that an IFA President was elected on the first count, but such was Joe Healy’s landslide victory that he exceeded the quota, taking more than 14,000 votes, a whopping 50 per cent of the electorate. It really was a stunning victory and it was obvious the Athenry dairy farmer’s message had resonated right across the country.
The writing was on the wall for his competitors since early Tuesday morning at the count centre in the Castleknock Hotel in Dublin when Mr Healy started to poll strongly in Munster, which should have been the stronghold of Kerry native Flor McCarthy. But Munster is a dairying heartland and they stayed loyal to one of their own, particularly in Cork and Limerick. Of course Healy mopped up Galway with a whopping 3,700 votes and by early afternoon it was simply an insurmountable lead.
The huge swing of support for the Galway native seemed to be the fact he was untainted by association. It is unheard of in the IFA for someone to become president without previously holding a senior post within the organisation. Competitors Flor McCarthy and Henry Burns both fitted the mould, with Mr McCarthy working as rural development chairman, while Mr Burns was also at the top table due to his position as livestock chairman. But after the crisis of monumental porportions which occurred last November, farmers were screaming out for some new blood.
The IFA was rocked to its very core with the revelations of massively inflated salaries within the higher echelons of the organisation. It emerged that former IFA secretary general Pat Smith’s pay packet was as high as €535,000. The salary level led to Mr Smith’s resignation in November and, in turn, that of former president Eddie Downey. It emerged that Mr Downey was paid €147,000 a year - plus expenses. He was also in receipt of another €52,000 in director fees for the FBD insurance company - which the IFA has a stake in - and the IFA position on the board of Bord Bia. More recently there has been strong rumblings about the high level of pay of another previous general secretary Michael Berkery.
It is just one mess after another, and farmers were certain that change was needed and Joe Healy being viewed as an ‘outsider’ to the higher echelons of the IFA did his election campaign no harm at all. That combined with a strong track record for being a trojan worker in a number of farming organisations over the years including as a former president of Macra na Feirme, a role on the Farm Apprenticeship Board, the Western Development Commission, and the Milk Quota Appeals Tribunal, along with polished performances at numerous hustings around the country more than proved his strong credentials for the job. He also shrewdly laid out his stall early on about the delicate issue of remuneration, stating he would be happy to be paid basic expenses to cover labour on the home farm and the travel required for the job.
Mr Healy arrived home to a rapturous reception at the Raheen Woods in Athenry on Tuesday night, where the bonfires began in Derrydonnell and continued to light the skyline for many hours. It was a deserving homecoming for a man who was not afraid to put his shoulder to the wheel and stand up for the organisation for which he feels such passion. Speaking in the aftermath of the result, he said he was delighted to have received such a great mandate from the farmers of Ireland. He is painfully aware of the huge systems failure within the IFA and that structures are needed to ensure more transparency. “The first job of work is to ensure that belief and faith in the organisation is restored. Transparency is a good start but there needs to be greater involvement and ownership by members. They have to feel a reconnect with the organisation. That seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.”
Without doubt there is an amount of work to be done, all beginning today when the new president flies to Brussels to partake in EU level trade discussions. Issues to the forefront of Mr Healy’s mind are tackling farm incomes due to the deterioration of farmers’ margins over the past number of years. “We see a case of almost all commodities being sold below the cost of production. It is only through a united organisation that we can achieve a viable cost of living for farmers.”