The west has not been home to an IFA president since the 1990s when Abbey Duniry based John Donnolly was at the helm of the organisation, but the region has a big chance of producing a farm leader once again in Athenry man Joe Healy.
The dairy and beef farmer is well known in agriculture circles through trojan work in different organisations and committees over the years. He certainly does not lack experience as a leader as a former president of Macra na Feirme back in the 1990s, and current chairman of the Commonages Implementation Committee. He also sits on the IFA Farm Business Committee, and takes great pride in the major improvements that have been made in the land mobility sector and to the incentives involved in the long term leasing of land, and the associated tax breaks.
In addition to these roles, he is the livestock editor of the Farming Independent but has understandably taken a step back from journalism for the time being to focus on the presidential campaign. And his CV does not stop there; among other positions held, he is a former chairman of Athenry Mart, has served on the Farm Apprenticeship Board, the Western Development Commission, and the Milk Quota Appeals Tribunal.
One wonders where he gets the time, along with running a busy operation on the home-farm in Athenry. And life has got a whole lot busier since he decided to throw his hat in the ring for what would - by far - be his biggest job yet.
A decision forced by a crisis situation
Three months ago, becoming IFA president was the furthest thing from his mind. But then the crisis happened - it emerged that former IFA secretary general Pat Smith’s pay packet was as high as €535,000. It was news that shocked the farming community to the core - especially due to the fact the average farm income comes in somewhere around €25,000 per year. The salary level led to Mr Smith’s resignation in November, but what drove IFA members into complete orbit was the news that Mr Smith’s severance package was worth €2m - made up of a lump sum of €1m plus an annual payment of €100,000 for the next 10 years. This in turn led to the resignation of former president Eddie Downey who had signed off on the package following legal advice. It also 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.
It has been a mess of monumental proportions. But now Joe Healy wants to put things right. Because he knows that as much as Ireland’s farmers needs the IFA, the IFA needs farmers. “We are only strong in numbers.”
He has cleverly set out his stall very early on the delicate issue of remuneration. “If I am lucky enough to be elected IFA president, I want to get paid enough to cover whatever labour is needed to cover me on the farm and basic expenses to cover travel, etc. That is all I am looking for and I have been very clear on that.”
So how would he set about unifying a lobby group that has been through the mill? “There has been a systems failure within the organisation, structures have to be put in place to ensure there is more transparency. Credibility has to be restored and 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.”
Repairing the damage
It is obvious he is passionate about the IFA and the work it can do - but this work can only continue to be fruitful if it gets the backing of its membership. “I am meeting hundreds of farmers on this campaign trail and I feel as much hurt in the IFA as the people I am meeting now. Genuine, loyal, dedicated men and women who had given their whole life to this organisation. I feel their sense of being let down. The first job of work of whoever is elected president is to ensure that passion, belief, and faith in the organisation is restored.”
Securing farming incomes and keeping commodity prices as strong as possible will always be of top priority to any president of the IFA. “I think the future of farming is bright. The world population is rising and as a country we are in a great position to produce a quality product. But it is an industry that will never be without its challenges, for example we need competition with cattle. The factories are walking on the farmers - between the retailers and processors – farmers are not getting their fair share. The farmer has looked after the animal for two, two-and-a-half years and the final price they get does not bear relevance to that.”
Something he has found interesting over the past number of weeks is listening to farmers from the smaller commodity groups. “I have been meeting hill farmers, tillage men, and pig farmers who feel they are not being listened to. It is important they have a voice as well as people in dairy and beef, because the contribution they are making is just as strong.”
He says the feedback on the campaign trail is very positive “I suppose what is standing to me is I have a huge amount of experience but in another way I am seen as a fresh voice. I have not been tainted by being associated with the top level of the IFA. I am passionate about farming, farm incomes, and farm politics. I am not afraid to stand up to the processors or co-ops when it needs be, or shout loudly or effectively on farmer issues.”
It is a long road ahead. There is campaigning on a daily basis, while hustings with the other two candidates - Laois man Henry Burns and Kerry’s Flor McCarthy are getting underway. Voting will begin on March 30 with a count on April 12. The new president will begin work on April 19, and one would think the IFAs future is bright if that man was to be Joe Healy.