Denis Lehane: IFA election about fixing in-house problems of representative group

IFA North Cork chairman Billy Cotter, IFA deputy presidential candidates Richard Kennedy, Nigel Renaghan, Pat Farrell

This is a very unusual IFA presidential election. In the past, IFA elections were always fought on how the organisation could be best steered to fix the many problems that exist in farming. 

This time, it’s all about fixing the problems that exist within the IFA.

The IFA has come down to earth with a bang, and is now back in the grassroots with the rest of us.

When I went to Oriel House Hotel, Ballincollig, to sit in on last Wednesday night’s IFA presidential debate, I had anticipated that the night would be poorly attended, because of the organisation’s recent controversies.

Well, I was wrong. Numbers were up on the last IFA presidential debate held here in 2013. I also noticed the age profile of those attending was younger. And that can only be viewed as positive.

I had expected a night of anger and ill-temper, I was wrong here also. The debates were interesting, even good-humoured in parts. The speakers were for the most part lively; I only yawned once. 

In 2013, I must have yawned 20 times. And what this means with regards to the IFA elections, I have no idea. Perhaps it just means that I am seeing more of my bed.

Going through the candidates for the top job in alphabetical order, I know Henry Burns best from seeing him holding up demonstration placards at various IFA protests. 

From news reports on television, to pictures on the newspaper, Henry is the face of IFA in protest mode.

A full-time beef, sheep and tillage farmer from Co Laois, he looks like a fellow who wouldn’t shy away from trouble, who you would be glad to have at your back should you run into difficulty.

In 2012, he was elected IFA National Livestock chairman. And in 2014, he was elected chairman of the EU Commission’s civil dialogue group for beef and sheep farmers. 

The Co Laois man is passionate about the IFA and has been a member for well over 20 years.

He said: “When I hear farmers who are good members of IFA, say the IFA are doing nothing on prices, it really should be my IFA, our IFA. Some farmers at this stage don’t feel that ownership of the organisation.

“We need to feel, like the men of 66, who walked to Dublin and barely had boots on their feet, it was their IFA back then. We need to get back to a place where more people feel like they did back then,” he said.

Presidential hopeful Joe Healy farms near Athenry, Co Galway. Joe is familiar to many as a former president of Macra na Feirme, and from his writing on farming for the Irish Independent.

He would not be seen as an IFA man — but this is where his appeal may lie. Joe’s campaign is all about “a fresh voice for Irish farming.” 

And he certainly has experience in farming life to make him an able challenger — milking over 90 cows and, like many more farmers, expanding his dairy operation.

He was also chairman of Athenry Mart from 1998 to 2004, and was manager of the mart in 2004-2005. 

In Ballincollig, Joe spoke of the need for change within the IFA and of “the structural failings” within the organisation that need to be addressed.

He also emphasised the importance of “protecting farm incomes.”

Flor McCarthy is a suckler farmer from Kenmare, Co Kerry. His involvement with the IFA stretches back over 25 years. Flor has served on a range of Brussels-based committees on behalf of Irish farmers. 

He was involved with Cap reform negotiations, he was IFA’s Kerry County chairman from 2000 to 2005, and also served on the IFA Livestock Committee playing a leading role in campaigns such as the 2000 beef plant blockade and the campaign against Brazilian beef.

He says IFA is an import driver of farmers’ income, but it needs to reconnect with farmers. 

“A real fear among many farmers is the difficulties within the organisation have weakened its standing and diminished the IFA’s ability to fight for the future of Irish agriculture and farm families.

“I want to bring power back to the IFA members on the ground. We have 88,000 members. Our strength is in the farmers.”

He allayed the fears of diehard Cork GAA fans who may have developed a wariness of Kerry people. 

“We haven’t had an IFA president from Munster for many years. And if elected, when I am heading up there to Dublin, I cannot but drive through the county of Cork, almost on a daily basis. I simply cannot ignore the county.”

Farmers I spoke to in Ballincollig had yet to make up their mind on how they would vote in the IFA election, leaving it to the candidates to sway them one way or another.


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