Opinion

What could a new IFA look like?

There has been, for many years, an urgent need to re-imagine what we want from our farm organisations including the IFA in this country.

Am I being too optimistic to suggest that the ongoing turmoil in IFA may be the catalyst we need for this process to begin?

For many, the IFA has always appeared to be an organisation of protest. A reactive body rather than a visionary, proactive one. Its website talks of ‘protecting and defending the interests of Irish farmers and their families’.  This is defensive, rearguard language.

There is little mention of a vision for rural Ireland, its land or its people. As I and countless others have learned from managing sports teams, it’s impossible to make any progress with everyone behind the ball all the time.

High profile displays of protest and agitation may have had a currency in a different era, but certainly not in this one. There appears to be a constant agitation for more subsidy.

Over time this approach has created an insipid and demoralising dependence culture over much of rural Ireland. There is now little or no incentive to farm well but rather wait for the postman to bring a cheque in the post. The majority have been slowly herded into the same corral of subsistence and dependence followed by yet more protest and agitation.

With a few wonderful exceptions, there is little or no innovation at farm level, the current malaise practically discourages it.

A revitalised IFA would have a vision for all rural dwellers that would be beyond all of that. Rural Ireland is historically resilient, self-reliant and enterprising. Such a vision would embrace and harness these traits. It would seek and promote innovative land use ideas.

The focus would be on quality produce into niche, high value added markets.

Perhaps understandably, this is not a priority just now for an association that seeks to regain the trust of so many of its loyal members.

It is however unfortunate, and ultimately unhelpful to their recovery, that many in the IFA appear to be on the defensive, happy to adopt the default pose of ‘defend and protect’ when it comes to fielding constructive criticism about their governance and also its future role as a farmer representative body.

This attitude will not help to facilitate the introspection required over the coming weeks and months as they seek to plot a course out of their current difficulties. Regrettably, we have seen numerous crises in a range of Irish organisations in recent years.

One gets the impression that a defensive period of circling the wagons, a spun narrative of ‘we are dealing with this internally’, ultimately did more damage to the organisations involved. Such a defensive response is instructive as to the rapidity of the cleansing and reform process.

On all farms, a visitor will see in five minutes what the owner will fail to see in a year. Perhaps, at this time, the IFA ought to especially seek and embrace the views of commentators from outside their association.

The current turmoil presents a wonderful opportunity for the IFA. Many thousands of farmers are not members. Thousands more pay their membership and levies out of a sense of obligation but grumble incessantly that they feel disconnected from the association.

The IFA ought to explore why this is the case and make themselves attractive to all rural dwellers. A clear vision, passionately articulated will be required to woo all of these people. The age profile and male domination of the IFA discourages many from joining or participating. It is redolent of its foundation back in the 1950s. This urgently needs to be addressed.

There has been a lot of nonsense in our media this year about this being a ‘new era’ for Irish farming, particularly where dairy is concerned.

Doing what we have always done, only on a larger scale with increased volatility certainly doesn’t define a new era for the producer.

A revitalised IFA however could lead us into a new era, an era in which rural Ireland is reenergised with innovation, providing opportunities for young people to remain and prosper. Where the ideas and the leadership well from the bottom-up and the benefits of this enterprise accrue there. Sadly, in Irish agriculture, the opposite is generally the case.

The ideas and policies are largely imposed from the top down. The distribution of benefits follows the same course. There often being very little left to trickle to the producer at the bottom.

It is very much a case of the farmer milks the cow and everyone else milks the farmer. The challenge for a revitalised IFA is to imagine a vision beyond this current stale reality. This will require visionary and dynamic leadership.

Leadership that is brave enough to imagine a different future and lead all rural dwellers towards it. I and many thousands more would be delighted to engage with such an organisation.