Farmers descended on Co Offaly from IFA branches all over the country to hear the last IFA presidential and deputy presidential election debate.
Eeven as the first votes were being cast in the election, over 500 turned up in the Tullamore Court Hotel for the last of 25 debates.
The candidates all put in impressive performances.
Meanwhile, the members go back for voting meetings which continue at the 947 branches until April 15.
A new president will be named on April 19, taking office immediately.
On IFA’s structure going forward, Henry Burns said IFA must have a branch-oriented structure and be “about the ordinary farmer on the ground’’.
Joe Healy said: “Transparency is the key, and every member of the IFA should be able to see the association’s year ending accounts”. He said motions from branches should be replied to.
“IFA must reconnect with farmers, and ensure transparency. IFA branches need to be more vibrant, meet more regularly, and the association needs to adopt a bottom-up approach, where the voice of grassroots members is heard.”
He said IFA must be to “the fore on all issues affecting farmers, including flooding”.
Flor McCarthy said: “Trust could be regained by uniting the organisation.”
He called for “full transparency on how money is spent”.
The candidates were put through their paces with questions from the floor.
All three were clear that this IFA presidential election was caused by a breach of members’ trust, and IFA must regain that trust.
On how they would see the main future thrust of IFA as a lobby group, Henry Burns said the agricultural budget was cut by 40% during the economic crisis, and IFA must lobby government to get these cuts reversed.
The presidential candidates agreed that it was essential the IFA get the right man for the job as the new general secretary, but refused to be drawn on a specific salary.
Flor McCarthy suggested: “The new general secretary should be given a short-term contract, maybe four or five years.” He said the IFA president should not sit on any committee that decides the remuneration of the organisation’s CEO.
Joe Healy emphasised the need to sort out leadership problems quickly, warning that “many farmers currently feel walked on”. He said a remuneration committee should decide on the CEO’s salary, but the president should not sit on this committee.
Asked about their experience at EU level, Henry Burns highlighted his work in EU livestock committees; Joe Healy cited his involvement with European young farmers; and Flor McCarthy pointed to his involvement in EU rural development.
On access to agro-chemicals for the tillage sector, with farmers at the debate saying some pesticides were disappearing off the market, Henry Burns said this had to be watched by IFA, particularly from the point of view of glyhosate.
He said: “The banning of many agro-chemicals is taking place from the point of view of sentiment not science. We can’t have all the restrictions, and a decline in the single farm payment. We are growing in an open environment where weeds grow. We need sound science to back this up.”
His comment that “we can’t let mad caps take over, or we will starve Europe’’ drew applause.
Joe Healy agreed: “It’s bad enough chemicals being too dear, but when you can’t lay your hands on them, that’s a different matter altogether”.
Asked what boards they were members of, Henry Burns confirmed he was on a number of boards due to his role as IFA livestock chairman (only one of which paid any remuneration), and Joe Healy confirmed he was on three boards, only one of which paid remuneration, which was just under €4,000. Flor McCarthy confirmed at Tullamore he wasn’t on any boards.
The candidates agreed that Irish farming stands up well in the climate change space.
Henry Burns said that we have to back our beef industry which is worth €2.2bn to the economy.
“The beef industry is as important to Ireland as the car industry is to Germany’’.
Joe Healy said Irish beef farmers produce 19.5kg of carbon dioxide for every kg of beef, compared to 80kg of of carbon dioxide on farms in Brazil.
On traditional breeds, Flor McCarthy said he supported them, but cautioned “they go in cycles”.
He said: “No other force should be allowed to change the popularity of such breeds with the exception of market demands”.
Henry Burns (Laois) said: “We are all here because we care about this organisation, but furthermore we need it to work”
He said the IFA was originally formed from splinter groups into a powerful lobby for farmers.
He emphasised the need to “adapt to its changing membership base, with more and more part-time farmers’’. He called for “a yellow card system for farm inspections where farmers would not be booted out of a scheme for minor infringements”.
Flor McCarthy called for the IFA’s commercial businesses to be run separately from the main organisation. He said IFA under his leadership would “fight the banks who try to sell off the loans of distressed farmers without first giving them an opportunity to buy out their loans”.
He also called for “an end to farmers been penalised for minor infringements in inspections”.
Deputy candidates look to lure back IFA ex-members
The IFA’s deputy presidential candidates see encouraging disaffected members of the IFA to return to the organisation as one of their main roles.
At the Tullamore, Co Offaly, debate, they were asked to name a major project they were involved with, involving farmers.
Pat Farrell cited his dealings with Eirgrid, and negotiating compensation for road building on behalf of farmers in his native Co Kildare.
Richard Kennedy (Limerick) referred to his involvement in the negotiations for compensation for landowners affected by the development of the dual carriageway on the outskirts of Limerick City.
Nigel Renaghan (Monaghan) mentioned a co-op set up for farmers in his county which now has a turnover of €75m.
All three agreed with a questioner from the floor that inspections, particularly in Bord Bia schemes, were becoming harder and harder for farmers.
Richard Kennedy said inspections give a mark of quality assurance abroad, but they are too severe on farmers. He suggested that farmers a get a month or so after failing an inspection to get things right.
Nigel Renaghan cited a case where he threatened to resign his seat as IFA poultry chairman on the meat and livestock board of Bord Bia, until a farmer who failed a Bord Bia inspection on a minor technicality was re-inspected. He said there would be no Bord Bia scheme without farmers.
Pat Farrell defended the IFA’s campaign for a €20 ewe premium, saying the sector would not be flooded with “expanding” sheep farmers, as suggested in some quarters.
On prices and family farm incomes, Richard Kennedy said the EU dairy product ‘intervention price must be increased’.
Nigel Renaghan said many farmers had surrendered their control in co-ops to PLCs who do not care about farmers’ welfare. He mentioned Carbery in West Cork as to how a co-op should operate.
“The profits they make from their cheese making business go back into the co-op, to pay farmers a higher price for their milk. In fact, Carbery pays the highest milk price in the country to farmers,” he said.
Pat Farrell said that he would lobby the Government for “an agriculture minister on its own, not one split with defence”.
He said he would “work for ordinary farmers, and that the IFA had become too concerned with its balance sheet and such things as IFA Telecom. This has to stop.”
Mr Kennedy said he would put principles above personalities and would work to improve the corporate governance of the organisation.
Mr Renaghan said that at 45 years of age, he was well placed to encourage more young farmers to come back to the IFA, should he be elected.
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