Opinion

It’s time for the IFA to get its life back on track!

It has been a good month for Irish agriculture; milk prices are on the up, the vast majority of farmers have received the advance on their basic payment and, by all accounts, Minister Noonan’s Budget was pretty agri friendly.

And all of this happened without the IFA having a permanent hand on the tiller.

This has been the reality of life up at the Farm Centre since Pat Smith exited stage left almost a year ago.

Given these circumstances, the cynic within me is tempted to ask the question: what difference does the IFA really make when it comes to getting critical policy decisions taken for Irish farmers?

But that would be very churlish on my part. It is universally accepted that Irish farmers need a strong voice, putting their case at the highest levels of government.

The IFA needs to appoint a new director general pretty quickly. But if the plan is to simply appoint the new supremo and then assume that life, and all that happens within it, will go back to the way it was in then the powers-that-be within the organisation are deluding themselves.

The appointment of the new supremo will give the IFA a unique opportunity to mark out its territory and explain in very clear detail what the organisation does on behalf of its members.

This issue goes well beyond that of staff salaries and the expenses paid to the organisation’s office bearer team. These matters have been pretty well addressed courtesy of the work carried out by former IFA economist Con Lucey over the past 12 months.

The real issue to be addressed is that of convincing rank and file farmers that the money they pay towards the IFA is a real investment and is generating them a sustainable payback.

The organisation has a new presidential team and soon it will have a new director general. It’s up to this combined grouping to take a very strong message to the country, one which communicates the fundamentals of what the IFA is all about in the 21st century.

There is also an onus on the new team at the head of IFA to mend bridges with the significant number of groupings the organisation has managed to alienate over recent years.

The commonage groupings in the west of Ireland immediately come to mind in this regard. Then there is the malting barley growers, who have had a recurring gripe with the way the IFA has represented them in the contract negotiations with the malting companies.

There is also a strong onus on the IFA to be proactive – not reactive. The challenge of Brexit is a case in point. These are still early days.

But already the British government is making it clear that it will not continue with a direct payment support system for its farmers beyond 2020. Defra minister George Eustice let that cat out of the bag when he visited Northern Ireland last week.

Seemingly on the agenda is the introduction of an insurance-based income support scheme which will be jointly funded by government and farmers.

But, one must assume, that this is code for an overarching commitment at Westminster which supports the continuation of a cheap food policy within the UK and this is, fundamentally, bad news for the Irish food industry.

Throw in potential trade deals involving the UK with Australia/New Zealand and the potential for problem creation here in Ireland is truly immense.

These issues must be addressed now. I sense Brussels wants to get the Brexit issue sorted out as quickly as possible. So there is plenty for the new IFA Director General to be getting on with!

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