Beef Plan’s original National Committee ‘breaks silence’ at midlands meeting

The vast majority of members of Beef Plan Movement’s original National Committee met in earnest for what it described as an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) at the Killeshin Hotel in Portlaoise last Sunday, January 26.

Nine of the original committee’s members were present including: Enda Fingleton (Laois); Helen O’Sullivan (Cork); Michael Rafferty (Monaghan); David Whelan (Westmeath); Kieran Logue (Donegal); Alan O’Brien (Kilkenny); Eoin Donnelly (Galway); Dermot O’Brien (Kerry); and Dermot Brennan (Sligo).

Beef Plan’s co-founder, chairman and National Committee member Hugh Doyle was absent from the meeting, as was fellow co-founder Eamon Corley. Both had been invited to attend, according to the organisers.

Approximately 250 Beef Plan members – from 23 counties – were present on the day (according to organisers).

Following weeks of toxic tension and division within the farm organisation – mostly relating to issues over governance – the organisers opened proceedings by outlining the agenda for the meeting: “to address why we are here today”; “to discuss elections”; and “to discuss motions of no confidence”.

Firstly, Michael Foley, who is a part-time farmer, lecturer at IT Tralee and Beef Plan committee member in Co. Kerry, was proposed and seconded to chair the meeting. He opened proceedings with the following remarks:

“I want everyone to leave here today feeling that we have accomplished something; but we want your views. We are a democratic organisation, always have been and always will be,” he said.

The first member of the committee to address the floor was Michael Rafferty, who described himself as “the representative for the Ireland-east region” and “Monaghan chairman”.

Rafferty’s initial port of call was to “set the scene” on why the meeting was called. In doing so, his aim was evidently to enlighten members about the original National Committee’s experience of an internal dispute that led to Beef Plan’s co-founders Hugh Doyle and Eamon Corley directing that the aforementioned committee be “stood down” last month due to “disciplinary issues” that, in their view, required “investigation”.

Rafferty went on to outline the original National Committee’s account of the stormy situation to date, saying:

The beginning

“I want to try and set the scene as to why we are here.

“We got a lot of calls from people saying ‘why are you guys not coming out giving the other side of events? Only one side of the story has been put out in recent times’. There is an impression among members that we were not coming out and giving a balanced view.

“We kept our council deliberately to try and communicate to our ultimate paymasters who are yourselves the members.

“We have had some communication difficulties where we haven’t been able to communicate with the membership through WhatsApp – the organisation’s way of communicating.

“This document [displayed as part of an on-screen presentation] is a document that Eamon Corley himself proposed about 12 months ago when he was trying to put some structures in counties and then taking those counties and dividing them into regions.

“The counties within regions were to hold elections.

“In some counties people came forward at the rallies that would have went on a committee. They would have met after the rallies and they would have elected a chair for the county; a vice chair; a secretary; etc.

“Essentially most of us came out of that system first.

“So when Eamon made this proposition that essentially we would group the counties together into regions, we were sent off on a mission basically to have elections in each of the regions.

“Each of the regions would have a chair and a vice chair and the rest of that regional committee would be made up of two representatives from each of the counties.

“That regional committee in my own area met and they basically had pieces of paper, crumpled them up, took a vote for chair and vice chair and those elections happened and out of that came the National Committee.”

Subsequently, Rafferty explained that ideas emerged with regards “commodity type groups” – such as purchasing groups and producer groups.

“We were all asked to have a purchasing group representative. In Monaghan we had two and we had a producer group representative and various other reps that would feed into other committees.

“I also got nominated by Eamon to take on animal health. From my own perspective that was a good idea because Monaghan and Cavan were particularly badly hit with TB at the time and were designated blackspots.

“Plus, there was the TB Forum going on at the time and we tried to launch a fairly aggressive campaign to get Beef Plan recognised at that – that’s essentially the very beginning.”

Growing pains

Rafferty said “typically” the term that was discussed for the “regionals” [regional committees] was one year.

“Essentially a year was considered enough time to get everything bedded in and that basically each region would have a clear hierarchy of how things would work.

“The National Committee, at that point, had a democratic mandate to represent the members opposite Government and to progress the interests of our members.

“A separation of responsibility was then discussed because you had a position where you had a board of directors for the company; but you also had the National Committee.

The current directors of Beef Plan Movement CLG (company limited by guarantee) are: Hugh Doyle (aforementioned); Kevin O’Brien (Galway chair); Enda Fingleton (Laois chair and south-east regional chair); and Alan O’Brien (Kilkenny chair and south-east regional vice chair). Eamon Corley (aforementioned) stepped down from his director’s role in August 2019.

“Essentially we didn’t want any ambiguity between the two. To ensure there would be cooperation it was agreed that some of the board of directors would be doubled up as committee members, but essentially the job would be divided in two.

“The board of directors were appointed to look after book-keeping, accounts, membership, legals and putting in place a directors’ and officers’ insurance policy.

“The National Committee then were responsible for all the other stuff. Our job was to progress the objectives of members on the ground and throughout the country and to lead that charge for the year.

“We formally announced that Beef Plan had restructured and, basically, a press release was done and the first meeting of the National Committee would take place in April [2019] – it would see two representatives from the five regions assemble, alongside the organisation’s chairperson and secretary.

“The only minor thing to note is the secretary of the organisation was considered ‘non-voting’; their role was considered predominantly administrative.”

Breakdown

Rafferty outlined that Beef Plan held its second National Committee meeting on May 21 (2019) in Tullamore, Co. Offaly.

He said that at the meeting there was discussion on the Beef Exceptional Aid Measure (BEAM) scheme, the Local and European Elections and agreement on the ability of the democratically elected National Committee to make decisions on behalf of all Beef Plan members.

Rafferty said a vote was also taken on whether a chairman should have a veto over the power of the National Committee. He explained:

“A vote was taken by the National Committee members that were there on the night; and I note some of the members were linked in by conference call.

“The committee voted seven to two to allow decisions to be made at National Committee level – but the chairman insisted that would not be the case.

“It was not for the National Committee to decide essentially was the chairman’s position and the meeting broke down with many members leaving.

“The topic at hand was one thing; but how it was dealt with was another.

“The National Committee made a majority decision, but because individual members didn’t agree with that decision, the decision wasn’t carried and that is a situation that has carried over time.”

‘Deaf ears’

Rafferty claimed that other concerns had emerged when he says “one of the members of the National Committee emailed Hugh with a guidance document on financial control guidance”.

“It had been published by a Government body to assist with robust internal procedures around money and other items connected with monies.

“The north-west chair raised with Hugh the huge risk to the organisation of all the WhatsApp groups being in the hand of one person.

“Concerns were also raised about membership registers; but unfortunately those concerns fell on deaf ears for the long period of time.

Behind the scenes concerns again continued to mount, according to Rafferty. He said:

“A vote was taken involving all counties during the summer to retain the National Committee. All counties got a chance to input into that and, essentially, the National Committee’s position was solidified by that vote.

“County WhatsApp pages were locked down with many counties and regional chairs given no access to the area of their responsibility. In my own case, again to give people a flavour, this didn’t happen unilaterally across the country.

“In Monaghan, as the county chairman and also as the regional chairman, I was removed completely from the WhatsApp groups that had the farmers in my county on it and we now know that other members had similar things happen to them.”

‘Very Tough’

Rafferty described the experience that the National Committee has endured over the course of the last year as difficult, noting:

“It has been a very tough 12 months for all of us and it’s important for everybody to remember that everyone in Beef Plan is a volunteer; we volunteer to do our work because we believe that beef farmers in Ireland are in a difficult place.

“We all want to move that to a better place and that is our motive and we are transparent about that.

“Some of the people on the National Committee feel they are being denied the ability to do their work by a small number of people; we feel some are working to discredit and tear down the National Committee.

“The frustration has come to the surface in some cases where we find it difficult to get things done; and sometimes we say things in frustration.

“The rules of governance were signed on December 6; but there was no input accepted from the National Committee.

“The rules are not perfect but essentially, up to this point, the rules have never been approved by the membership – the people that they are designed to protect.”

County Elections

With county elections looming, Rafferty said the committee had to “find a way” of making the rules work in the short term. He said:

“Our most immediate issue was there was going to be county elections and so we carried out a review of section six – which was the piece dealing with county elections.

“We found that particular section lacked robustness, despite the fact that there were concerns around the membership database.

“With assistance from county chairs that were invited to attend the meeting a document was published and that document was called ‘the supplementary regulations’ for the AGMs [annual general meetings] and the elections.

“We are not changing the rules; this is a temporary document that would help make sure that there weren’t obvious loopholes in the procedure that goes through – making sure that someone is properly nominated, etc.

“It was not new rules; these were supplementary regulations to the rules to address shortcomings.

“However, it was viewed very negatively in some quarters.

“Then there was a message communicated to us in late December, followed up with another to the National Committee on January 4.”

‘Stood down’

Rafferty then proceeded to read out the January 4 correspondence, which was also displayed on a screen at the event last Sunday.

This is what it said:

“Following on from the statement that was posted on the county pages last week in regard to alleged serious disciplinary issues that may have been committed by some members of the National Committee, members of the National Strategy Page, and other members, we have decided to stand down the National Committee, the regional committees, the sub committees in their entirety, in order to conduct fair and transparent AGMs across the counties and conduct an investigation into these allegations.

“This is a regrettable measure, but one we feel is necessary in order to continue the day-to-day running of Beef Plan and to oversee the upcoming county AGMs and the formation of the new National Committee.

“We will be establishing an interim committee in the coming days.

“We will be contacting a number of trusted, hard-working, prominent members from different counties in the coming days to form a new national interim committee, which will be the governing body of Beef Plan until the elections have concluded.

“Going forward only direction and correspondence from both national chairs and from members of this interim committee will be legitimate.

“Any member of the outgoing committee, current members of the strategy page, and other members who act as an authoritative figure – either internally within Beef Plan or externally – without the approval or in conjunction with the joint chairs may be seen as bringing Beef Plan into disrupt [disrepute] and may face disciplinary sanctions.

“These actions include, but are not limited to, trying to arrange or attend a meeting for the purposes of carrying out Beef Plan business, attending the Beef [Market] Taskforce for the purposes of representing Beef Plan, any lobbying event or prearranged meeting, political or otherwise, issuing press releases or any other time when a particular person puts themselves forward as a spokesperson or representative figure of Beef Plan without the consent of both chairpersons Hugh Doyle and Eamon Corley.

“These members who have been alleged to have been involved in actions, which may have brought Beef Plan into disrupt [disrepute], or whose actions may be in conflict with the rules of governance will be notified in due course and will be expected to cooperate fully with the disciplinary procedure.

“At this point we would like to sincerely thank the outgoing committee for their diligent hard work and volunteerism and we hope to resolve this regrettable matter as soon as possible.

“Our only objective is to secure the future of Beef Plan so farmers can be represented by an organisation who at all times place their interests first.

“Kind regards,

“Eamon Corley and Hugh Doyle (joint chairmen of Beef Plan).”

Reflecting on this correspondence Rafferty indicated that the existing – and by then supposedly stood down – National Committee members found it “deeply insulting”.

‘Hurtful’

He said: “The National Committee have done huge work and that is generally accepted and I think the tone of this particular message is hurtful – and essentially since then the National Committee hasn’t put out in the public domain our views.

“At the end of the day, what we are doing is for our fellow farmers. We haven’t always got it right, but at the end of the day this is deeply insulting.

“We apologise for not making our views known before now, but we thought that it was better to keep our powder dry.

“I want to reinforce and thank everybody in Beef Plan – not just the National Committee – but there are people in counties that have worked away very silently, that are not in front of TV cameras, who are not mentioned in press releases and the work that they have done.

“You are far bigger in number than we are and Beef Plan would not be where it is today only for you,” Rafferty concluded.

The ‘new’ National Committee?

In a subsequent development – and in a further twist to the tale – AgriLand received a statement (dated Monday, January 27) on behalf of a group purporting to be the “newly-elected National Committee – elected under the signed-off rules and [of] governance”.

It asserts that Sunday’s meeting was “unauthorised” and describes the out-workings as a “type of sabotage”. It goes so far as to say that its members “reacted furiously” to the holding of the meeting.

The statement said: “The unofficial EGM was not a valid meeting of Beef Plan and the business discussed is not binding on the organisation, as no member received any notification thereof.

“It appears the sole purpose of the meeting and handful of individuals that organised it was purely character assassination of the people within the organisation that wish to follow the rules and get on with the proper democratic election process and get on with representation of farmer members.

“The organisation will have to look at the organisers of yesterday’s meeting and their future role in the association.

“Over the last number of months, the four directors of Beef Plan – Hugh Doyle, Kevin O’Brien, Enda Fingleton and Alan O’Brien – were given the responsibility of putting in place rules and [of] governance to safe-guard the organisation into the future. The former temporary National Committee had a significant influence in the final draft of the rules and Government which was signed on December 6, 2019.

“The new structure would see as significant change in the representative structure of Beef Plan from a regional representative structure, to each County having their own representative. This change will result in significant loss of control and influence of the organisation by the former temporary National Committee members.”

It later went on to say:

“The unofficial EGM/meeting held on Sunday [January 26] had no legal standing and was not in line with proper EGM notification rules. Furthermore, the former temporary National Committee has no authority to organise this event or any other event and, as of January 15, 2020, they are only ordinary members. This meeting has only served to further damage Beef Plan.

“All concerns regarding any financial matters or accounts will be addressed at the AGM, as is standard practice. A full set of independently-audited accounts will be presented at the upcoming AGM.

“As of January 24, notice has gone out to the remaining counties who have not yet held their AGMs. These remaining AGMs will be held on February 14 and 15. This will be the last opportunity these counties will have to hold their AGMs and elect their County Committees and elect a representative to be part of the National Committee. Any member of any county that has not yet held their AGM can assist in organising the event.” 

Stay tuned to AgriLand for more on this story…

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