Achievements of a hectic four years Capped by protest

BRINGING 20,000 farmers onto the streets of Dublin to peacefully protest against proposed changes in the Common Agricultural Policy was the highlight of John Bryan’s four years as president of the Irish Farmers’ Association.
Achievements of a hectic four years Capped by protest

His term as leader of the 88,000-member IFA comes to an end at noon tomorrow when incoming president Eddie Downey from Slane, Co Meath takes office at the annual general meeting in Dublin.

John Bryan, 55, from Inistioge, Co Kilkenny, said the 2012 Dublin protest sent a clear message across the European Union and helped to change proposals that he believed would have devastated Irish agriculture.

CAP reform and funding were major issues for Bryan during his presidency, which coincided with dramatic change in the economy, farming and society in general.

It was a roller-coaster period with fluctuating commodity prices, wet weather, banking and financial upheavals, flooding, rising production costs, fodder shortages, and food scares. But it was also a period of renewed confidence in the industry, with food and drink exports reaching a record €10 billion.

Bryan travelled thousands of miles to meetings countrywide. He lobbied taoisigh, cabinet ministers and the European Commission.

With the IFA’s general secretary Pat Smith and its Brussels- based operations director Michael Treacy, he sought support across Europe for a change in the CAP proposals.

Bryan met with German chancellor Angela Merkel and then French president Nicolas Sarkozy as the IFA created alliances with farmer groups from other member states.

It was a gruelling schedule, but he loved the buzz and challenge of it all, while never forgetting the lessons he learned as a garda, stationed for three years at Pearse St in Dublin.

On the day he became IFA president, he said he strongly believed in exhausting all avenues of negotiation before embarking on orderly public protest.

Bryan enjoyed his time as a garda, but he missed rural life. When an aunt left him a farm he came back to Kilkenny, where his family has a history of commitment to society and agriculture.

He is a grandson of a Land League founder and a nephew of Colonel Dan Bryan, who fought in the War of Independence, served in the Free State Army and was director of military intelligence during the Second World War.

His father James and his uncle Michael were founder members in 1955 of what would later become the IFA.

He was elected National Livestock Committee chairman when there was a slump in cattle prices and a growing concern about the impact of Brazilian beef imports. He led a campaign that resulted in a change of policy by the European Commission which banned beef imports from Brazil and led to better livestock prices.

Bryan was elected IFA president in 2009. But it was a depressing time in agriculture.

Farming had become devalued and was seen as being less important in the economy.

He recalled it was not a good time to be looking for money from a government which was to come under huge pressure trying to meet Troika targets.

“It was a battle on every one of the budgets. In good times the battle is how many extra million euro you will get. In bad times it is door-to-door fighting to hold every cent you can,” he said.

The CAP reform agreement reached during the Irish EU presidency, with Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney chairing the Council of Ministers, was seen to be better for Ireland than the initial proposals.

In an autumn newsletter to members, Bryan stated that IFA opposition and flexibilities secured by the minister “mean a more balanced package can be put in place where single farm payment losses to productive agriculture have been reduced by two thirds.”

But selling the outcome to different IFA sectors was still a daunting task for Bryan. The deal was incredibly complex and took a lot of explaining at meetings. Robust debates took place as farmers calculated the impact on their payments. Feelings were particularly high in the western counties.

Granlahan branch in Co Roscommon did not vote in last month’s IFA elections. It accused the association of failing to stand up for smaller farmers. It was the only branch out of 947 to take such action.

Bryan pointed out that 500 people were at the last Roscommon County Executive meeting he attended. “We had about 98% supporting our position,” he said.

There is still unfinished business, however, because Mr Coveney has yet to announce how the CAP reform is to be implemented here. Farmers are anxiously awaiting the details.

A budgetary deal negotiated by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the European Council secured annual funding for Ireland of €1.2 billion (direct payments) and €313 million (rural development).

Bryan and other farm leaders have called for national co-financing (50-50) of the rural development pillar to fund key farm schemes.

He has also sought targeted support for active farmers in vulnerable sectors and regions.

He said this is a golden opportunity for the Government to invest in the agriculture and food sector, which supports more than 300,000 jobs, including an increase of 25,000 in 2013.

But he admits to being particularly disappointed that promised Government legislation on retail trading, an issue on the day he became president, is still not in place.

He said the IFA is in a healthy condition and the drop in voter turnout at the recent elections — down 14% nationally and 20% in Connacht — was not a matter of concern.

Bryan explained it was in line with the average of the five previous elections, including 2009 when there was a record turnout with more candidates and contests and a different farming climate.

The outgoing president and his wife Rena, who have two children, Cathy and James, will now have to adjust to life after his IFA presidency.

But there is growing speculation he will seek a Fine Gael nomination for the European Parliament election in the new South constituency.

All he would say on the record was that he enjoyed being IFA president and will miss it. “I definitely believe I did something for farmers and the economy during the past four years.

“I will have to look at the options but I would be interested in doing more again and I’d enjoy the challenge,” he said.

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