A major overhaul of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) branch network will be required to rejuvenate the organisation at grassroots level, it was admitted this week.

All four candidates in the national elections for president and deputy president conceded that a fundamental rethink of the role of the branches was required.

Martin Stapleton insisted at the Carrick-on-Shannon hustings that a total revamp of the IFA at branch level was “going to have to happen”.

“We need to look at the branch structure because the current system is not working,” the Limerick presidential candidate said.

“One of the tragedies for us right now is that a growing number of our farmers will not under any circumstances participate in [the] IFA,” Stapleton said.

While Stapleton admitted that the branch remained the “touchstone” of the organisation, he said its former role as disseminating information had been usurped by the mobile phone.

We do need to look at the way the branches work

The weakness of the branches also meant that there was a reduced flow of information and views on issues coming back from the branches and there was no local point of contact for new members.

“We do need to look at the way the branches work. And that has to be driven from the ground up. The president can provide a forum to do it, but every branch will have a different solution,” he said.

Branch mergers were a possible solution for some areas, Stapleton admitted.

“Maybe, and I’m not suggesting this, but a group of farmers or a mart, or the members of a mart, might be a better way for us to have a branch structure,” he told the meeting.

Foundation

Laois presidential candidate Francie Gorman likened the branch structure to the foundation of a house.

“If you don’t have it there, you have a weaker structure,” he said.

“We still need a proper branch structure. It might be weak at the moment, but it will always give us feedback on the issues of the day,” Gorman said.

He pointed out that the branch network provided the IFA’s reservoir of voluntary officers.

The decline of the branch network over the last 20 years, he argued, had resulted in fewer people coming through from the grassroots and a weakening of the link between the association’s leadership and ordinary members on the ground.

“We need to put voluntary officers back front and centre in the decision-making process in the association. That is something I would like to see happening if I was elected president,” Gorman said.

Meanwhile, Alice Doyle said that if elected deputy president, she would like to specifically take on the task of rejuvenating branches.

Galway candidate Pat Murphy said branches needed to be more proactive in carving out a role for themselves in attracting and holding members. He said this might involve hosting events such as information meetings or social gatherings.