The two candidates for the Munster regional chairpersonship of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) have both highlighted the importance of communication, both within and between the IFA’s own members; and with the general public.
The two candidates are Mark Connors, from Co. Waterford, and Conor O’Leary, from Co. Cork. They will find out their fate next month when the results of the voting in this year’s IFA elections are announced.
Both have expressed concern over how the IFA communicates, with Connors focusing in on communication outside the organisation with media and society, and O’Leary drawing attention to the organisation’s internal communications, especially with members who might not be familiar with more modern forms of communication.
Connors, a member of the IFA environment committee, said that the way the IFA communicates outside of the “agri-bubble” needs to be improved.
“We’re appalling at communications. We’re great communicating in the agri-bubble, but we’re not very good at communicating to the general public. We lose every debate in my opinion,” he told Agriland.
Connors said that the IFA’s director general (currently Damian McDonald) should be the association’s main spokesperson, rather than the president of the day.
He citied the example of Tom Parlon, the director general of the Construction Industry Federation (CIF).
“In the Construction Industry Federation, Tom Parlon has really built a reputation in that industry in the last eight to 10 years. He’s done a marvelous job to be fair to him. I think that’s what we should do.
“We really need to articulate our message way better in public, and we need to just take stock and try to look forward eight to 10 years and see what’s coming up and how we are going to inform the debate,” Connors said.
The beef, dairy, and forestry farmer said that IFA presidents, who might have been elected to the role for reasons other than their skill as communicators, cannot be expected to go toe-to-toe with media commentators who are critical of agriculture.
“It’s not their fault. They might be there for perfectly good reasons. They might be brilliant negotiators behind the scenes, they might have a great knowledge of policy, but to ask them to go up against Oisín Coughlan (director of Friends of the Earth Ireland) or John Gibbons (environmental journalist) or any of these guys is fundamentally unfair,” Connors said.
“These guys eat, live and drink this specific topic they are on, while [IFA presidents], their remit is so broad.”
“I personally think it’s a rubbish narrative out there. It’s a one-sided debate propagated by the media. A one-sided debate is good television,” he added.
The public debate over farming’s role in environment and climate change is one area where Connors said proper communication is paramount.
“2030 is approaching very quickly. We need to get in the game on what methodology is going to be used for carbon sequestration and emissions and what’s going to be taken into account.
“You can bet your bottom dollar that heavy industry, the airline industry, they’re all out at the moment trying to find their angle, and it would be an absolute disgrace if there was a miscarriage of justice once again in that aspect,” he said.
Connors added: “We are front-line environmentalists, we are dealing with it everyday on the ground. We know in our hearts and souls that what is being said about us as an industry is fundamentally flawed.”
Separately, Connors is also concerned over farm payments, saying: “The amount of commercially sensitive family farms that are no longer viable because of convergence and front loading and what not, they’ve really destroyed it.
“The old system was out of date, but it has to go to guys and girls with muck under their fingernails,” he added.
Connor O’Leary, meanwhile, said that communication within the IFA itself is an area that needs improvement.
“Our communications have a particular issue. The person on the ground, bar something coming through the door in the post, they really won’t know what’s going on, and all the good work being done. We’ve got to solve that communication issue,” he told Agriland.
“Now that’s a ‘top-down’ and a ‘bottom-up’. In today’s communication style, what percentage of the membership can latch on to it, or make use of it? The organisation can’t afford to put something in the post for everyone in the organisation. So the cost of that type of communication isn’t possible,” O’Leary added.
The Cork Central IFA chairperson said that electronic forms of communications should be more widely explored within IFA, but that the challenge would be to get some members of the association familiar with communicating in that way.
“I think the electronic communication is certainly going to be the way forward for it, but whether we can bring things up to speed in terms of…making use of that communication I don’t know. But we’ve got to try.”
The communication issue feeds into another issue that O’Leary said he would bring to the table if he got the Munster regional chairperson role, namely how the IFA engages in the issues of the day at the county level, with O’Leary calling for a “team” approach, rather than issues being solely the responsibility of the relevant officer.
“What we would have set up in our own county particularly is that – [while] traditionally we would have had commodity officers, which we still have – we [county officers] would meet on a monthly basis, for a brief before and after national council meetings, so each of the officers in the county sort of takes responsibility for a topic or an issue that’s happening at the time, so that each commodity officer isn’t left on their own to deal with something,” he explained.
“So meeting on a monthly basis, in a kind of forum – it could have to do with nitrates, it could have to do rewetting, and whatever lobbies or whatever sort of task you take as a group – we all do it, rather than it being left to the person who is the environment chair or the dairy chair or the beef chair, to do it on their own.”
According to O’Leary, this system seems to work well, saying: “We find that the response is a whole lot better.”
He added that, if he won the Munster regional election, he would work to put a similar system in place more widely across the IFA.
“I’d like to use the position if I got it to enable everybody from county chairs down to work in that type of format, even down to branches,” he said.
“If you get the communication process correct, everybody starts working on the issues of the day,” O’Leary added.