Last Thursday, farmers heard that Pat Smith, the Executive Secretary to the IFA received almost €1million as income in two years. As I pointed out in my post last Friday, these funds were taken from the annual income of the IFA, about €13 million. Farmers paid membership subscriptions and levies to fund this.
It appears that he was removed from his post on the same day. Last Friday, he was still being described as a brilliant strategist. But was he a brilliant manipulator? Some defended his salary saying that if we, as farmers, pay peanuts, we will get monkeys. Smith has been credited with securing farmers with a €13 million tax break in the 2015 budget. However, we are moving into an election year, there’s been much about tax breaks for all kinds of sectors and I doubt the leaders of the political parties visit the Ploughing Championships every year for the good of their health. I’ve a feeling any ‘monkey’ could have secured that.
The news of the salary was enough to anger and upset farmers last weekend and they had more questions. What were the salaries of the other leaders? What was the size of the severance package? No one believed that Smith left quietly without a big fat cheque. How long has this been going on? For how long have the top staff been receiving such large salaries and benefits? It took until Monday for some answers to emerge. The sense of bewilderment and fury were palpable.
Next up was the news that Smith’s pension fund is worth €2.7 million.
On Wednesday evening, we heard the ‘big fat cheque’ was much plumper than anyone could have possibly guessed. It is €2 million; €1 million to be paid now and €100,000 per annum for ten years.
The President had signed off on it.
By 9pm, the President had resigned.
Why are farmers so furious and upset?
Part of the problem is farmers never knew that the President got a salary. Most genuinely believed he (Presidents have always been male) did it for the love of the job, for expenses and yes, probably for career prospects as a political career looked promising sometimes. Now, it might sound ridiculous but it was never confirmed by the IFA leadership that a salary was paid; the question was always fluffed over. I assumed a salary of €75K plus expenses. It was eventually revealed to be €147K plus expenses plus the cost of a farm manager plus the director’s fees for sitting on various boards. Downey was receiving almost €200K plus expenses. To put this into perspective, it is worth remembering many farmers experienced extreme stress during the fodder crisis of 2013. The grassroots members and county chairpersons worked hard to support farmers in whatever way they could. Vets were being put on suicide watch. Hay was imported from the UK and France. Animals died and men committed suicide. It’s no wonder farmers feel hurt.
The current leaders – the deputy President (now acting President) Tim O’Leary and Treasurer Jer Bergin, are not stepping down. They don’t seem to consider themselves responsible for any of this. O’Leary admitted on Prime Time that it was a mistake to leave Downey on his own with Smith while discussing the severance package. However, it seems bizarre that an organisation as large as the IFA has such a weak structure in place that one person can sign off on that amount of money. Apart from anything else, it just leaves the organisation vulnerable to corruption. I’m not saying Downey should have stayed but was he made a scapegoat by the others as they saved their own skins? The IFA now have to spend hundreds of thousands on lawyers and as Smith has asked for €1million of the severance package to be donated to two charities, farmers are left looking like the bad guys if they don’t pay up.
Farmers don’t know who to trust. Many have given years of service to this organisation and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that some leaders in the past have almost been revered. Can any of them even be believed now? John Bryan, the last President, was interviewed on local radio the other day. He claimed he didn’t know he was going to get a salary. It must have been a lovely surprise to be told on his first day in office that he was going to get €110,000 a year. Does he really think we all came down in the last shower? It’s worth noting that was 2010, the President’s salary has gone up €37,000 in six years.
It’s not just the money now in my opinion. Trust has been eroded by arrogance. Loyalty has been flung back in members’ faces. People feel like they have been kicked in the teeth.
What are farmers doing about it?
Many farmers are cancelling their levy payments. These are payments taken at source when we send milk to the processor and cattle to the factory (levies are also taken on grain and at the mart). These aren’t compulsory payments but were set up automatically. Farmers were always free to stop them but like us, they probably put it on the long finger or felt that the money was going to a good cause, to an organisation that ‘worked hard for farmers’.
Some are debating cancelling their memberships. Others are determined to stay united for now and see what happens. The renewal date for our membership is 30th November so we were going to make a decision one way or the other this week. The severance pay deal of €2million was the final straw. It wasn’t just the amount, it was the outright arrogance. I don’t want to blame Irish Mammies here but there seems to be way too many IFA leaders who consider themselves infallible.
I’m not telling people to cancel their memberships. That decision is a personal one and it’s up to each individual to decide what they want to do. There are only two things that will persuade me to rejoin: if the new IFA leadership proves itself trustworthy or if there is someone going for President who is worth voting for.
Reaction to RTE Prime Time
I was invited to be part of the panel for RTE Prime Time programme on Thursday evening. I knew that not only would I be expressing my feelings about the IFA leadership but I was representing many farmers around the country, farmers who are upset and angry, farmers that are calling for leaders to resign, farmers asking for answers to questions and saying that the severance package can’t be paid. The other panelists were Derek Deane, Tim O’Leary and Matt Dempsey – all of whom were bound to be doing their utmost to protect the status quo and calling for ‘cool heads’. No pressure on me at all!
While the occasional farmer viewed what I said as an attack on the IFA as a whole, most seem to appreciate my anger and passion as I did my best to get answers to questions, attacked the IFA leadership, expressed dissatisfaction and disgust with what has happened, highlighted my opinion that the IFA leadership is an ‘old boys club’ where some ensure that other men just like them get onto boards and into positions of influence. I’ll never be on Tim O’Leary’s Christmas card list that’s for sure!
I’d like to thank the hundreds of farmers who sent tweets and messages in support of my efforts and my arguments especially those who rang or texted to make sure that I wasn’t lynched on the way out to the car 😉
Will the IFA survive this?
The sad thing is that the current leadership could have been ‘heroes’ if they had reacted to the concerns raised in Con Lucey’s resignation letters in 2014. The IFA has a strong foundation as it has thousands of grassroots members and county chairpersons who are loyal, hardworking, dedicated, decent, honest and who have worked for the common good just as the founders of IFA did.
However, it’s impossible to guess that what will happen until we know what comes out in Lucey’s report on 15th December and how members react to that. Words such as debacle, fiasco and farce have been used to describe the happenings over the last week. Keeping the existing executive board in place is a mistake in my opinion as it is just continuing the atmosphere of distrust, betrayal and anger. I see that the Sligo County Executive have just called for all the members of the executive board to resign and 84% of the voters on an Agriland poll want them to resign.
Farmers need representation, we need a united organisation, and we need to trust each other. I hope IFA survives and comes back stronger and renewed with fresh blood, with men and women who treat each other with respect, who think of others instead of themselves and who work for farmers with unity and strength. Local loyalty is a big thing in the IFA with many members previously voting for the Presidential hopeful from their own county or neighbouring county. I hope members vote for the best person for the role of President and we can move on.