From Pomp and Power to Disarray: IFA Leadership Unraveling
Last January, in the National Convention Centre, the IFA put on a display full of pomp and power. It was celebrating its 60th anniversary. And while there were plenty of stories of its humble origins, when its founding leaders Juan Greene and Rickard Deasy traipsed the highways and byways of the depressed Ireland of the Fifties and Sixties, the overwhelming message emanating from this superbly organised event was what a powerful organisation it had now become.
EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, various Government Ministers, and captains of every industrial sector in the land, were there to laud the association. And rightly so. Being there, one got a real sense of the IFA’s power and influence, and why any Minister, of any government, would tangle with this great national organisation at his or her peril.
And yet, bizarrely, the seeds of the controversy that erupted two weeks ago, and which has left the IFA now in organisational disarray, had already been sown. It was in August last year that Con Lucey had written to the senior officers of the association explaining why he was “resigning forthwith” as chairman of its Audit Committee (AC), citing “unacceptable interference” by then chief executive Pat Smith.
His letter made clear his particular concern that Mr. Smith wanted to vet documentation going to the AC, and how this would interfere with his plans to “check that all expenditure is authorised and that the method of authorisation is robust”. He further stated that, “in my view, it would be a waste of the AC’s time and a charade if documentation were first to be sanitized before being considered by the AC”.
He further outlined his objection to Mr. Smith attending AC meetings, since he was not a member of that committee, which he (Mr. Lucey) interpreted as “intended to influence the meetings” and, he concluded, that Mr. Smith’s behaviour “is in conflict with the very purpose of the Audit Committee”.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, and the meltdown of the past fortnight, the lack of response by Eddie Downey and the other senior officers to Lucey’s letter was baffling. So it lay there, like a ticking time-bomb, and even when four County Chairmen of the Association put forward a motion of no confidence in Mr. Smith last January, Downey got a counter-motion expressing confidence in Smith carried by a majority of the National Council.
Of course, now that the farmyard manure has well and truly hit the fan, every person in any position of leadership with the Association is clinging to Con Lucey like a child clings to its comfort blanket. Con now has got their full attention, and there is little doubt that he represents the best hope of the IFA navigating a resolution to at least some of the current mess. However, although he has given outstanding service, and his stance last year of resigning as Chairman of the Audit Committee is a mark of the man, I’m sure even he would not regard himself as Superman.
Because it increasingly looks a job for Superman to resolve all the issues bubbling up and now confronting the IFA. So what has to be done? Well, it’s a membership organisation, not a private conglomerate, and it depends primarily on its members’ subs and levies to pay its way, and their support for its moral authority and political heft.
Therefore, the wage rates, especially at the very top levels need to be adjusted downwards, while still being at a level which will ensure high quality personnel. It seems eminently sensible therefore to revert to the former benchmarking of the Chief Executive salary to that of a Departmental Secretary General, and the President’s emolument in office to that of a Junior Minister. Furthermore, the association’s governance rules, as they relate to openness, transparency and accountability in particular, need to be fully and clearly set out.
Con Lucey certainly has the skill-set and experience to address those issues. But there is an awful lot of other messy stuff around that won’t be as easily resolved. What will happen now with the Pat Smith severance package for instance? Mr. Smith clearly wants the remuneration package of his predecessor, Michael Berkery, brought into the frame, while the latter has warned the association not to release his data as it is covered by a confidentiality agreement.
All this is before the candidates for the now-vacant presidency come out swinging in what could become a bitter and divisive campaign. I find it hard to see, for instance, how any executive officer who was addressed by Con Lucey’s August 2014 letter, and did not respond then, can be a credible candidate now.
Meanwhile, up and down the land, ordinary farmers are undoubtedly appalled and browned off with the revelation of lotto-like salary packages of the past fortnight, and the brazenness and ineptitude revealed at the top of their representative body. Faced with paying a Superlevy bill of €70 million, the collapse in the milk price, and the shutting off of the Russian export market, farmers need a strong, united and effective IFA like never before.
The association has rightly enjoyed a reputation down the years for being a formidable negotiator for, and defender of, Irish farmers, in Dublin, Brussels and at international trade talks. Let’s hope the current leadership, having been fulsome with its mea culpas over the past week, ensures there is a clean break with the mistakes of the past, and that no unfinished business is left around to dog the association further in the weeks and months ahead.