The new president of the ICSA (Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association), Edmond Phelan, has vowed to meet the major challenges facing the sector head on.
Edmond, who runs a beef and tillage enterprise in Fenor, Co. Waterford, narrowly defeated ICSA Animal Health & Welfare chairman, Hugh Farrell, and the Association’s vice-president for Munster, Dermot Kelleher, in a vote at an ICSA National Executive meeting in Portlaoise on Thursday, June 27 last to succeed Patrick Kent in the top job. Edmond and his wife of 30 years Frances have three grown-up children, Carol (28), John (26) and Christine (22). Carol is an accountant based in New York, John is an engineer who will eventually take over the running of the farm, while Christine works as a dietitian for the NHS in Edinburgh.
Edmond is looking forward to leading the Association for the next two years (he will have the option of seeking re-election in 2021) and to “defending the rights of farmers around the country”.
He says: “I’ve been involved in the ICSA for many years and have been privileged to work with outstanding colleagues in the Association. It was an honour to be elected president following a great contest with Dermot Kelleher from Cork and Hugh Farrell from Cavan. We remain good friends and will continue to work together for the betterment of Irish beef and sheep farmers.
“I’m coming into this role at a time when Brexit and Mercosur are threatening the livelihoods of our members. There are huge challenges which we won’t be standing back from.”
As a beef farmer and a former ICSA beef chair (a role he held for six years), Edmond believes an EU-Mercosur trade deal would be disastrous for the sector.
“We don’t have a moment to spare when it comes to preventing this or when it comes to delivering on the €100 million EU beef fund farmers are being crucified so Germany can sell cars to South America,” he says.
“ICSA is vehemently opposed to any Mercosur deal that includes a tariff rate quota for beef. Not only would it be economically devastating for Irish beef farmers, but it is also farcical that the EU should expect Irish farmers to adopt a broad range of climate change measures while they ignore the massive climate change and environmental downsides of importing vast quantities of beef from South America.
“The sector is on its knees as it is, and Mercosur has the potential to destroy Irish beef farmers. Processors and retailers are squeezing prices to the extent that beef farming has become a loss-making exercise. The expansion of Irish dairy herds is also having a negative effect as it’s creating an oversupply of beef. I can tell you now that Irish farmers won’t start for a scenario where Brazilian beef – which is completely untraceable – is sold in Irish supermarkets.
“I’m a firm believer in free trade, but not when it comes to food produce. You should be able to stand over your food and where it comes from. The shorter the food chain, the less transport costs etc are involved. The provenance of our food is paramount. In fact, food should not be part of any free trade agreement. It’s too important.”
Edmond continues: “Of equal importance is getting the €100 million EU beef fund to the most deserving farmers in short order. Farmers in the cattle sector have endured a really difficult period and it is urgent that the money is paid to those farmers without them having to jump through any more hoops. For this reason, ICSA will continue to oppose any conditionally attached to accessing this fund.”
Brexit also continues to loom large on the horizon and Edmond fears that it could be even more damaging than any EU-Mercosur deal.
“It’s the biggest worry of all. Over 50% of our beef goes to the UK. Where will it go if the British stop taking it?” he asks.
The ICSA was founded in 1993 by farmers who were concerned that there was not an adequate voice for the beef and lamb sectors. At first, these farmers felt that the old ICSA (Irish Cattle Traders and Stockowners’ Association) could be revived. This association had its roots in the 19th century and several references to it appear in James Joyce’s famous work, Ulysses. Following a series of meetings in traditional beef fattening areas, it was decided to relaunch the association. However, while the link with the old ICSA was retained in the name, this was very much a new start-up association that pledged to fight for all drystock farmers, including sheep and suckler farmers.
Pat Lalor, who is the man behind Kilbeggan Organic Porridge Oats, was the association’s first secretary. His vision was to put in place the structures for a professional organisation and this was reflected in the recruitment of a full-time general secretary, Eddie Collins-Hughes, and dedicated recruitment officers. Jimmy Cosgrave from Meath was the first chairman. He was succeeded by Albert Thompson from Laois in 1996.
Within a number of years, ICSA had established a full-time office in Portlaoise and the association was put on a very strong footing by Eddie Collins-Hughes on an extremely tight budget. However, he stepped down as general secretary to pursue a role in the Carers’ Association in 1998 and was succeeded by Ray Doyle, who was replaced in turn by Eddie Punch. Eddie became general secretary in 1999 and since then, the ICSA membership has grown to over 10,000 members, while its progress has been recognised in being appointed social partners by the Government. The ICSA national executive has over 100 members drawn from the 26 counties on the basis of four members for each county (subject to membership criteria).
Working closely with the national president are three regional vice-chairpersons – Dermot Kelleher (Munster), Jimmy Cosgrave (Leinster) and Mona O’Donoghue-Concannon (Connacht/Ulster) as well as six commodity chairs.
“Our members are driven by a passion for what they do rather than by financial gain. We’re all voluntary with the association being funded entirely by membership,” Edmond points out.
“My first official appointment as president was at the Embrace Farm Ecumenical Remembrance Service in Abbeyleix only a couple of days after my election. Later that same day I attended a sheep farmers’ protest outside Kepak in Athleague. It’s been all go so far, but I’m enjoying it.”
The ICSA is committed to representing the interests of Irish beef and sheep farmers in the strongest possible way at home and abroad.
ICSA National Office
3 Gandon Court
Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 7 No 6, November 2019