The Ulster/North Leinster chairman elect has taken the absence of candidates standing against him as vindication that he has emerged untainted from the IFA’s salary controversy last winter. While IFA members will decide the association’s next president and vice president, as expected, Bert Stewart will retain the regional chairman’s post without having to contest an election.
The Drum man told The Anglo-Celt that, while there were some who sought to find an opposing candidate, the fact that a contender didn’t materialise indicated a general acceptance that he did “little or anything wrong”.
Mr Stewart did, however, accept that executive board members could have done more to uncover the “spiralling” salaries earlier, and that the next board will have a mammoth job in restructuring governance of the association.
“I’m delighted to finish the term that I started,” Mr Stewart told the Celt on Thursday. “It’s a sign that members have given a vote of confidence in me, that I did the best that I possibly could do. I suppose they can see that I did little or anything wrong. I’m just happy to continue to represent and try to rebuild the organisation after the damage that has been done, and rebuild the confidence of members in the organisation because we’ve never needed an organisation more than we do now with farm incomes where they are and the bureaucracy that’s there.”
He said he wasn’t tempted to run for the roles of president or deputy president.
“I was asked to run for deputy president, but I was very happy to finish out the term that I started as regional chairman, and with the rule change I did have the opportunity to put my name forward and run again.
“It’s a vote of confidence in me that nobody objected to me, or put another name forward. I know some people were looking for candidates to run against me, there was nobody willing because they felt that I’d done all that I could do in the period of time that I was there.”
When the salary debacle emerged last November Bert said it was a tough time to be a board member.“You were tarred with the same brush as the people who were getting high salaries at the top - that wasn’t the case for any voluntary officer. The only officers who got salaries were the president and deputy president - which I didn’t know until about four or five months ago, when we started to dig into this. That was the first I ever knew there was a salary for deputy or the president.”
'Took too much for granted’
He accepts that the board didn’t probe deep enough into the salary scales until the damage was done.
“Probably we took too much for granted before. Maybe we didn’t ask questions at the time - what we felt maybe were silly questions. The organisation was financially strong, salaries we were being told were only increased by one per cent in the last six years. But of course we started to see, some salaries had actually been reduced but other salaries at the top had spiralled out of control. That is something that always has to be dealt with.”
He refutes the view held by some that those in senior positions are money motivated, explaining that regional and county chairmen receive €40 for attending meetings lasting up to eight hours, and €100 for those over eight hours and an average of 60c mileage.
“People would say that you’re only in it for the money. But that wasn’t the case... I think it’s important to say that no voluntary officer is in it for the money, it’s for the betterment of other farmers. As somebody said to me, what you lose - and you do lose in your farm, there’s no doubt about it - you more than gain it in the friendships and relationships you make with people throughout the length and breadth of the county, and the country.”
Mr Stewart is also eager to retain the post he has previously held of animal health chairman, however, that will be in the gift of whoever becomes the new president.
“I would be hopeful I would stay in that position because we made progress just last week on compensation - particularly the income supplement farmers receive when they lose cattle with TB. There had been no change in that for the last 20 years. We did get a 120% increase in income supplement from €25-55, and quite a number of other changes as well.
“We didn’t get all that we wanted, but we certainly did get movement - we felt that last week was a good time to put the maximum pressure on. We probably wrote a small forest [worth of paper] to the Minister [of Agriculture Simon Coveney] over the last 18 months when I stepped into the position.”
He wouldn’t be drawn on his preference for presidential candidates.
“They are all very able candidates and it’s great to have people of the calibre to put their names forward because it is going to be a tough time. there’s a lot of sorting out to be done of the organisation - the whole governance of the organisation has to be looked into. It’s a huge workload for whoever takes the job of president.”