Walsh, Joe (1943–2014), government minister, was born Michael Joseph Walsh in Ballineen, Co. Cork, on 1 May 1943, the third child of five sons and three daughters of Richard Walsh, farmer of Kilmoylerane, Ballinascarthy, Co. Cork, and his wife Margaret (née Dullea). His father was in the IRA during the war of independence but subsequently abjured politics. Shy, studious and ambitious, Joe went to Ahiohill National School before becoming the only child in his family to attend boarding school, though his time at St Finbarr’s College, Farranferris, Cork city, was personally and educationally unfulfilling. He struggled to find employment at first, then worked for several years in local dairy co-ops. During the 1960s he hurled for Round Towers, a junior club. Enrolling in UCC, he graduated in 1970 with a degree in dairy science and joined the Moorepark Institute in Fermoy, Co. Cork, as a dairy researcher. A tall, broad man, soft-spoken, laconic and scrupulously inoffensive, he married Marie Donegan, a nurse, in 1970; they had three sons and two daughters.
Active since the early 1960s in the Ahiohill cumann of the Fianna Fáil party, he was a founding secretary of the UCC cumann in 1967, later serving as secretary of the Ahiohill and Fermoy cumanns. His early progress occurred under the wing of local Fianna Fáil deputy, Flor Crowley, who alienated many supporters by opposing the party leadership over the 1970 arms crisis. Breaking with Crowley, Walsh highlighted his credentials during 1972–3 by organising commemorations of Liam Lynch (qv) and Richard Barrett (qv), two Cork anti-treaty men killed in the civil war; he also wrote and published two biographical booklets.
He narrowly secured a Fianna Fáil nomination for the 1974 local elections in the Skibbereen district, despite being a non-resident, based in Fermoy. His technical speeches on farming and the EEC impressed voters weary of nationalist tubthumping and he topped the poll, remaining on Cork County Council until 1991. In 1975 he moved closer to his electorate by becoming general manager of the privately-owned Strand Dairies operation, settling in a fine Georgian house in Emmet Square, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Assisted by his brother Finbarr, he increased sales through better marketing and milk quality, launching the successful Clona brand in 1984.
In 1977 he stood for the dáil in the sprawling, agricultural-based Cork South-West constituency, campaigning ostensibly alongside, though really against, Crowley, whose electoral base lay in uncomfortable proximity. Walsh described their rivalry as ‘bare-knuckle stuff’ (Irish Times, 28 Apr. 2001). Upon claiming a seat at Crowley’s expense, he assumed a punishing schedule as a TD and creamery manager that left little time for his family. (In 1980, he was driving home exhausted when he crashed, suffering a serious eye injury that required surgery.) He entered the dáil brimming with reforming zeal, but disillusionment followed, both with dáil politics and his government’s ruinous economic policies.
From summer 1979 he flirted with the mounting internal opposition to party leader Jack Lynch (qv), who resigned that December to be unexpectedly succeeded as taoiseach by Crowley’s ally, Charles Haughey (qv). Haughey’s divisive rule exacerbated Walsh’s feud with Crowley, wherein the former’s staid, managerialist persona contrasted with the latter’s folksiness. Walsh surprisingly lost his seat to Crowley in the 1981 general election, undone by his supporters’ complacency and a spoiler Fine Gael candidate on his doorstep. Rallying to win a seanad seat, he exploited anti-Haughey sentiment to recover his dáil seat from Crowley in the February 1982 general election before confirming his ascendancy over him in that year’s November election.
Prominent in various failed parliamentary party ‘heaves’ against his leader during 1982–3, Walsh thereafter accommodated himself to Haughey, staying put in the mid-1980s when some of his closest parliamentary party allies began breaking away, against his advice, to form the Progressive Democrats (PDs). With Fianna Fáil in opposition, he brought his farming knowledge to bear in dáil debates, also impressing with his work on oireachtas committees. He made his name calling for the development of Ireland’s food processing sector, becoming a darling of the farming organisations.
Upon regaining power in 1987, Haughey made Walsh minister for food – the first such – in the Department of Agriculture. He quit Strand Dairies to focus on a junior ministry where his over eagerness triggered clashes with the minister for agriculture, Michael O’Kennedy, who restricted him to giving upbeat press conferences lauding Irish cuisine. Repeatedly rumoured for O’Kennedy’s job but repeatedly denied it, he had not done enough to atone for his past, despite proving a useful go-between during the 1989 Fianna Fáil–PD coalition talks. Moreover, he treated constituency running mates like enemies, never having got over his defeat in 1981. Sustained by a formidable personal machine, he carved up Cork South-West with the other two sitting TDs, both Fine Gaelers, sabotaging Fianna Fáil’s chances of a second seat.
He did not become minister for agriculture until February 1992 when Haughey was succeeded by Albert Reynolds (qv), who overlooked Walsh’s unexpected failure to support his first leadership bid three months earlier. Walsh took office in the shadow of the beef tribunal, which was publicising pervasive malpractice within the meat processing sector. Although not dangerously exposed, he was complicit in his department’s policy of ignoring such frauds with a view to maximising the flow of EEC subsidies towards Ireland’s food and farm sectors.
Previously seen as a hardworking, media-friendly reformer, he developed a reputation for being lethargic, low-profile, and beholden to his civil servants first and the farm lobby second, much to the latter’s disappointment; his regular attendance at race meetings drew unfavourable comment. The beef tribunal and the pressure building at EEC level against the wasteful Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which had so benefited Ireland, would have put anyone on the back foot, but Walsh always seemed happiest there. This approach yielded an unusually long run (1992–4 and 1997–2004) in the only ministry he wanted.
During the 1992 negotiations for the first meaningful CAP reforms, he emerged as a masterful exponent of the traditional tactic of cooperating closely with the French and allowing them to do most of the resisting while waiting for the right moment to push Irish interests. He always avoided headline-grabbing brinksmanship in favour of cultivating personal friendships with EEC colleagues. The upshot was an agreement that imposed loose cattle, sheep and cereal quotas; and began withdrawing intervention price supports in favour of direct payments to farmers based on sheep and cattle numbers and on acres farmed.
Posing a daunting administrative conundrum, both for his department and for farmers, the diffuse and complex direct payments regime launched in 1993, inaugurating an era of regressively subsidy-skewed farming to howls of outrage. Delays and mistakes were inevitable with Walsh taking the blame, as well as being deluged by dáil questions concerning individual cases. Yet by overseeing the adoption of computer technology and by empowering capable senior civil servants he ensured that his department was one of the best in the EEC (the EU from 1993) at expediting farm payments, doing so rather too freely.
A fine-tuned instrument for dispensing largesse towards sectoral lobbies and the politically connected, the Department of Agriculture was reprimanded throughout his tenure for failures in managing public money. With so many under him privy to sensitive information, especially concerning the beef tribunal era, he perpetuated a culture of cover-up and tolerated bureaucratic fiefdoms. In return it was accepted that he could deflect public criticisms towards his officials. When scandals did arise, everyone closed ranks and there were few leaks; tellingly, one such in 2001 forced the resignation of his trouble-making junior minister for food, Ned O’Keeffe. In the late 1990s Walsh saw off attempts to castrate his department by creating a separate entity for processing EU payments and grants. There was some nibbling around the edges with the loss of responsibility for forestry in 1997 and for greyhound and horse racing along with most of rural development in 2002.
He drove the much-needed consolidation in 1994 of most of the state’s Irish food promotional activities into a new agency within his department, An Bord Bia, but generally his risk aversion meant endless procrastination, typically through mediation, while problems festered indefinitely without turning serious. If under his watch food labelling became more informative and farmers more subject to stricter environmental and food safety regulations, this was in response to external pressures; likewise, with his minimalist animal welfare initiatives. He displayed competence and guile whenever events prodded him into action. As farmers declined in numbers and economic importance, he took a more casual attitude towards their constant criticisms and occasional mass protests.
Following Fianna Fáil’s poor showing in the November 1992 general election, he was the first senior party figure to argue for an unlikely coalition with Labour, the agreement of which saved Reynolds. This earned Walsh the forbearance of a taoiseach often exasperated by his ministerial passivity. Despite Walsh’s remedial efforts, that government collapsed acrimoniously in late 1994, taking Reynolds’ leadership of Fianna Fáil with it. Walsh was an early and ardent promoter of Bertie Ahern’s winning leadership candidacy and prominent in his failed attempts to revive the coalition with Labour.
A month shy of securing his ministerial pension, Walsh followed his party into opposition in December 1994, the loss of civil service support leaving him bereft; worse followed when Ahern made him the party spokesman for social welfare. He knew nothing about his new brief but acquitted himself passably with help from an academic. Over time, however, he spoke more and more on farming. Ahern appointed him agriculture spokesman in the run-up to the 1997 general election and minister for agriculture afterwards.
Walsh repaid Ahern by steering Irish farming unscathed through a hazardous period, dominated by the collapse of foreign markets for Irish beef and cattle throughout the late 1990s over BSE fears. Through his influence in Brussels, particularly with the EU commissioner for agriculture Franz Fischler, he obtained accelerated payments to Irish farmers, increased subsidies for beef exports to non-EU countries, temporary relaxations of intervention purchasing restrictions, improved funding for sheep farmers under the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme in 2000, and cattle purchase for destruction schemes that prevented a disastrous glut in 2001 by taking 500,000 cattle off the market. He enjoyed similar success in persuading the Irish minister for finance, Charlie McCreevy, to top up various EU schemes. Walsh’s sporadic imposition of spending cuts twice provoked major farmer protests, but this calculated stringency won McCreevy over.
His biggest test came in March 2001 when the foot and mouth disease then rampant in the UK spread via smuggled sheep into the Cooley peninsula in Co. Louth, threatening disaster for Irish agriculture. Crucially, Walsh had by then made substantial progress towards establishing a comprehensive cattle traceability database through electronic tagging. He astounded everyone with his dynamism and authoritativeness, as the outbreak was suppressed amid a cull of 54,000 animals in Cooley (another 6,000 elsewhere), precautionary restrictions on 700 farms, the closure of all livestock marts, the mass deployment of security forces to the border, and the cancellation of sporting and St Patrick’s Day events.
He passed and rigorously enforced tough legislation for licencing livestock dealers, electronically tagging sheep and introducing animal movement permits, thereby curbing the sizeable black market, and attendant disease containment vulnerabilities, enabled by the prior lack of regulation. The dismayed farm lobby could do little given the cull’s exposure of large numbers of phantom sheep on the Cooley peninsula. Walsh’s much-acclaimed handling of this crisis defined his career, despite justified criticisms of him for long ignoring extensive sheep smuggling and for reacting slowly to the UK outbreak: the Irish public rather identified with his preference for not inconveniencing anyone until it was strictly necessary.
Increasingly valued in cabinet for his experience and common sense, he was in a right-wing clique that dominated its deliberations. McCreevy was the key figure, and his support permitted Walsh to lavish money on horseracing and greyhound racing from the late 1990s, contentiously so with horseracing, given its wealthy, politically influential patrons. Furthermore, in a decision later condemned by the comptroller and auditor general for being taken without consideration of financial value, Walsh rushed through the 100 per cent funding for an equestrian centre in McCreevy’s constituency, increasing this from £6.9 million to £14.8 million amid cost overruns during 2000–02.
Continuing to guard his seat jealously, he attended local funerals assiduously and helped Clonakilty gain from a coastal resorts tax incentive, the transfer of state jobs and a flourishing technology park. His vote hoarding became increasingly intolerable to party colleagues, and Ahern intended dropping him following the 1997 and 2002 general elections but relented after lobbying from farm leaders and food processors. In 2002 Walsh’s survival required additional appeals from McCreevy and the racehorse industry.
Latterly, Walsh was the acknowledged elder statesman of the EU council of agriculture, and not just because he was its longest serving member. His receipt of the Legion d’Honneur (2002) and of Spain’s Grand Cross of the Agricultural Order of Merit (2003) confirmed his international standing. He helped thwart attempts to dismantle CAP in 1999 and to eliminate EU export subsidies at the Doha world trade talks in 2001, but further CAP reform was inevitable. At the decisive talks held in summer 2003, the French abandoned Ireland while the Irish farm organisations were divided over the best approach. He emerged with acceptable terms, as the EU agreed deeper price support cuts compensated for through a much-simplified single annual direct pay-out derived from each farmer’s early 2000s payments received.
Strikingly, not only did he decide that Ireland should immediately adopt, rather than phase-in, the new system from 2005, but he implemented it in a way that generated iniquities with big cattle finishers doing well while small dairy producers and farmers renting out their land suffered. Intended to hasten the restructuring of Irish farming along more large-scale, commercial lines, it was the act of someone who knew his time as minister was up yet had designs on becoming Ireland’s new EU commissioner. Ahern, however, judged McCreevy more deserving of this gilded dismissal. Once McCreevy was prevailed upon to go in August 2004, Walsh promptly announced his departure, retiring as minister that September and from the dáil in 2007.
There followed assorted private directorships and state appointments, most notably his active chairmanships of Cork racecourse (from 2006) and Horse Sport Ireland (2008–13) and his role as public interest director (2009–13) of the Bank of Ireland after its costly rescue by the state. A member of the bank’s remuneration committee, he was heavily criticised for sanctioning lavish bonuses and pension top-ups for its executives; by 2013 the bank was paying him €89,000 a year. He died on 9 November 2014 in Cork University Hospital and was buried in Ahiohill Cemetery.