Years ago , the role of IFA president was seen, in my eyes at least, as a glorified position.
One where the back got slapped with great regularity.
The hand got shook, the pay was generous, and the fame was a pleasurable bonus.
The Ploughing Match; three days of veneration.
Four years of the good life.
Fellows were queuing up for the gig.
Whoever became IFA President was a made man (no women yet).
It was like the Mafia, but without the broads and the murder.
IFA top brass thrived, physically and every other way.
Like cattle on extra ration, they shone.
They were admired by all.
I could be wrong, looking at it as I do from the viewpoint of a silent member, but I’m fairly sure I’m bang on when I say it was once an old boys club.
A wonderful job.
The only downside was that the time at the helm was limited.
But all has changed.
The glory days came crashing down in the era of Eddie Downey.
I always felt sorry for Eddie.
The problems with the IFA were not of his making.
He was just the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Whoever was there at that moment in IFA history was facing the chop.
The axe had to come down eventually.
It was nothing personal, only business.
Farmers found their voice, and it wasn’t a pleasant tune.
A halt was put to the IFA gallop.
So we return to the present, four years on, and there I was on a cold bank holiday Monday night in October, in Lawlor’s Hotel, Dungarvan to listen to three candidates aiming for the top spot, and two vying for the role of Deputy President of the IFA.
That’s the question most would ask, after all the mud was flung in the aftermath of a €2m severance deal for the IFA general secretary, Pat Smith, in November, 2015.
Before all that, I’ll talk about myself. As an IFA member, I was constantly reminded on Monday night that my view counts, and that I need be listened to. Well here’s my take.
I had planned to attend the election debate a few days earlier in Oriel House, Ballincollig (a lot closer to home).
Unfortunately, owing to the fact that, like many beef farmers who work off-farm to keep the show afloat, I was unable to get the time off work.
That’s beef farming in 2019!
For me, a lot has changed since the last IFA election.
I have had to accept that my future in beef does not lie on the land, but off it.
Not only have we lost faith in beef farming, but in promises made, and in the IFA too.
I can only speak here from the beef farmer’s point of view.
Beef farmers have only left the IFA building in droves, and did their best to kick the doors off the hinges with their departure.
There is a lot of anger in beef over a feeling of being let down by the IFA.
The IFA election meetings thus far have been peaceful enough nights, but only because many of the disillusioned have already left.
The question now is, does the IFA want them to return?
All presidential candidates on the night said they did.
Angus Woods, possibly the most high profile of the three seeking the top post in the IFA, was first off the blocks.
He has been full time farming for 28 years, running a mixed enterprise of suckler cows and sheep. He grows feed barley on rented land for his own cattle and sheep, and of course, for the straw.
The Wicklow farmer is a polished talker, the kind of fellow you could see working well in the corridors of power.
But I’m not sure about the common touch, his ability to connect with the farmer on the ground, which I feel will be key to his chances of success.
Angus spoke a lot about his achievements within IFA and, in particular, of the work he has done in his role as Livestock Committee Chairman.
Angus has been Chairman since 2016. He highlighted the need to improve communication, or in his words, “to get the message back to you guys.”
Summing up, Angus emphasised the need to get out more often, and the need to be “bold, brave and to make the hard decisions.”
Angus promised to deliver, and could well do so.
IFA Presidential Candidate, John Coughlan, a north Cork dairy farmer seemed to be more grounded in his delivery.
But with 100 cows (and 100 cattle besides), can he connect with many of us who are feeling marginalised?
However, the statistics delivered by John at the beginning of his speech left no one in doubt as to where his priorities lay. They were stark and attention grabbing.
The North Cork man, and current Munster Chairman of the IFA, spoke of the 3,000 farmers in Co Waterford who support 4,000 jobs.
He spoke of one third of farmers earning €22 a day, and of the 5% of farmers aged under 35.
He spoke about the “disillusionment in farming” and of the necessity that farmers are “not to be taken for granted.”
He spoke of the need for young people to get involved in farming, and of IFA reform.
He caught the ear, which is essential when endeavouring to catch the vote.
IFA Presidential candidate and Tipperary farmer, Tim Cullinan, has big ideas.
And when the man talking took a 20-acre farm over, 20 years ago, and transformed it in a viable pig enterprise, now employing 15, you tend to listen.
One of his “Radical Proposals” as Tim termed it, is to set up a new Suckler and Drystock Committee within the IFA, and “a new Beef Finishers Committee, to represent the over 100,000 farmers in this vital sector.”
He spoke of the need for a €200 suckler cow scheme and a €30 ewe payment.
Music to the ears of the many disenfranchised.
All three clearly desire the top IFA job, and have the skills and ability necessary to fill the role.
It’s up to you to choose your man.
As for the beef farmer, the problem with beef farming today is not the fault of the IFA. The beef barons, bureaucracy, and bad trade deals made in Europe are the main culprits.
IFA is a farm organisation set up to help and assist the farmer, it’s simply that in beef, we had hoped IFA could have done more.
Thomas Cooney wasn’t long on his feet before he was expounding on all the experience he has had within the ranks of the IFA, lobbying various governments and ministers, with the aim “to make farming a better career.”
A member of the organisation for over 25 years, Chairman of the Laragh branch in Co Cavan from 2007 to 2011, Thomas has been an IFA national committee chairman since 2016.
He also highlighted his role as a “lead negotiator in the renewal of the nitrates derogation.”
The beef farmer went on to say he would use this experience to address problems like Brexit; climate issues; commodity prices, particularly in relation to beef; and of course that old bugbear, CAP reform.
He was the first on the night to mention re-establishment of the Early Retirement Scheme (which as the years roll by, is beginning to sound more appealing to me).
Thomas spoke of the need for “restoring pride” in farming, he spoke of making farming “viable,” and ensuring it is once again seen as “a respected career.” But he was speaking to an audience which lives in nervous, do-or-die times.
As deputy president, Thomas will need to pull out all the stops to achieve his stated aims.
Brian Rushe from Co Kildare is 38-year-old farmer, not quite young enough to be my son, but young enough to be my far younger brother.
So what did my brother in farming promise he would prioritise if elected as deputy President.
Brian spoke about the fight.
The fight for “farmers income” the fight for “a sustainable future.”
A strong speaker, he said the future of IFA is intrinsically linked to a future on farming.
Brian spoke of the farming way of life, and his personal dream of working one day alongside his sons on the farm.
He promised to fight for farm families.
“Farmers drive the economy, we must support farming,” Brian says.
“Farmers pulling together, are an unstoppable force.”