Noel Baker talks to farmer Joe Healy, new president of the IFA, on the problems facing the organisation in the wake of the debate over the salary paid to its former general secretary
YOU could say that Joe Healy, the Galwayman who is the newly elected president of the IFA, has a winning pedigree.
The father of three from Athenry is a former All-Ireland sheep shearing champion and at one point was able to free a sheep from its wool in a cool 90 seconds. It’s fair to say that resolving the issues within the IFA might take a little longer.
“You are never going to get everybody singing off the same hymn sheet,” he says at one point when reminded of the different, and sometimes competing, farm sections which operate under the IFA umbrella. But one area around which nearly all the 75,000-strong membership seemed to unite was a sense of disillusionment and disgust at the revelations last year over salaries at the top level of the organisation.
Moving past that dark hour in the IFA’s recent history and focusing instead on boosting farm incomes is going to be a challenge, but one the former Macra man has embraced after what he says was the “family decision” to go for the IFA presidency. Those challenges include the current lack of a chief executive.
Pat Smith, the former general secretary of the IFA, was paid a total salary package of €445,000 in 2014 and €535,000 in 2013 — revelations which precipitated a meltdown in the upper echelons of the country’s largest farming representative body.
Healy’s predecessor, Eddie Downey, stepped down, first temporarily and then for keeps amid internal wrangling over the disputed terms of Smith’s severance package and accusations of interference in how the organisation was being run.
Galway dairy farmer has won 50% of the votes in the Irish Farmers Association elections to become its new president https://t.co/fwoEGFnGDB— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) April 20, 2016
“None of my predecessors had an easy job,” says Healy.
“There was more than enough work to keep them occupied for more than 100 hours a week. What is different is we need to prioritise more because of the chaos and trauma that engulfed the organisation. Look, it’s still there.
“We need to appoint a chief executive. I don’t know did any president come in without a chief executive in situ, I don’t think they did. We need to make sure it’s a good person and right person for the job.”
He would like the job filled “sooner rather than later” but accepts that “we have to be prepared to go back to the drawing board” in the event that a suitable candidate is not available. As part of the recruitment process the salary package will be set — as it will be for Healy and other top members of the IFA — by an independent committee. The new president admits that he does not know what his own salary will be, but he promises a new era of transparency following the shambolic events of last November.
“We must ensure there is as much transparency as possible,” he says, adding that “farmer members around the country fully appreciate that people have to be paid, that I am leaving a farm that I like to think was fairly well ran and I will do little or nothing on this farm for my term.
“Members around the country do not want their representatives to be out of pocket.
“They are in the job to better the lot of Irish farmers.”
While the pay packets of Smith, Downey, and others caused uproar, Healy says the element of the story which seemed to upset most people was the fifth-year salary paid on leaving the office of president after four — “especially the fact that no one knew about it”. It’s fair to say it does not look like that payoff will be a feature on the IFA’s balance sheets in future years.
A dairy and cattle farmer who contributed markets reports to the Farming Independent, Healy is also a former president of Macra Na Feirme and made a point during the campaign of meeting with grain, pig and potato farmers to gather their views.
Having taken these soundings he believes the absolute priority is boosting farm incomes. He wants the various sub-committees within the IFA which specialise in certain areas, such as sheep, to have more power and to be more involved in central negotiations.
“There is no person better to negotiate a positive outcome than someone living that sector every day of their life,” he says.
“As an organisation we need to improve the ground-up structure and have a structure where branches are not just meeting once a year and they hear a report about the past year and that’s it; that they feel more of an ownership of the organisation.”
As a dairy farmer he has personal experience of the impact the plummeting milk price has had, describing the past 12 months as “very difficult, extremely difficult”.
“We have situation currently where nearly all commodities sell below the cost of production,” he says, referring to milk prices per litre of 24.68c locally at a time when Teagasc puts the cost of production somewhere between 25c and 26c per litre. The seemingly neverending winter and lack of grass growth has simply compounded the problems faced by many farmers.
He supports the idea of a dedicated minister for rural affairs and wants a minister for agriculture who has only that portfolio to contend with, stating: “It’s the largest indigenous industry and farmers took it as insult that in the last reshuffle the minister’s time had to be divided.”
He would like to explore with Revenue the idea of developing a programme where profits generated by farmers in a good year could be placed in cold storage and then used to help pay tax liability in a bad year — “unfortunately, what we lack there is a structure to manage volatility,” he says.
Other issues include meeting with the main banks to discuss better access to finance and money through lower interest rates on loans as well as better lines of communication between them and farmers. He also believes cost of production issues could be addressed by, for example, trimming anti-dumping and import tariffs on the fertiliser sector. He also wants to look at issues such as the older age profile of farmers and farm succession, admitting that in most cases, Irish family farms cannot afford to get any smaller.
Within the IFA, there is also work to be done. Latest figures indicate that 500 farmers have gone to the trouble of contacting the organisation to cancel their membership, while another 4,500 members have lapsed.
“They are being contacted at the moment to ask them what they want to do,” he says.
His to-do pile is stacked high. “I have a very young family,” he says, referring to his wife and their daughters aged 15, 13, and 11. “It is a big sacrifice for them and a big sacrifice for myself as well, it changes the family dynamic.
“It was a family decision, we are here and we are going to give it our best shot and whatever I can do to better the lot of Irish farmers, that’s what I will be doing.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved