Rea, Joe (1938–2007), farm leader, was born 2 May 1938 in Cahir, Co. Tipperary, eldest of two sons and a daughter of Michael Rea, farmer of Farmlee House, Ballyea, near Cahir, and his wife Catherine (‘Kathleen’, née O’Keeffe), originally from Co. Wexford. A voracious reader from early childhood, he was an eager student, first at Ballylooby national school, then briefly at St Joseph’s College, Cahir, before his father’s death forced him to leave school aged fourteen to help his mother run the 106-acre farm.
In 1952 he founded the Cahir branch of Macra na Tuaithe, a rural organisation for teenagers, and joined its national committee five years later. Graduating to the young farmers organisation, Macra na Feirme, he was chairman of the Cahir branch from 1960, the South Tipperary chairman from 1964, and elected to the national council in 1966. After meeting Margaret Ryan from Donohill, Co. Tipperary, at a Macra dance, he married her in 1966; they had two sons and a daughter; as Joe’s activism developed, Margaret undertook much of the child-rearing and farm-management.
Macra’s educational activities familiarised him with modern farming methods, as did a two-year rural diploma course with University College Cork, with Rea attending evening lectures in Clonmel vocational school. From having fifteen cows in 1958 – when he engaged in mixed farming – he invested heavily, winning awards in farm management competitions during the mid-1960s. By 1967 he was an expanding dairy specialist with sixty-five Friesians. He acquired another 100 acres during the 1970s. Progressive in other respects too, he was alienated from the catholic church by what he saw as the Irish hierarchy’s strangling of the Second Vatican Council reforms.
Upon being elected president of Macra na Feirme for a two-year term in 1967, he developed a strong public profile by broadening Macra beyond its educational and social remit. Speaking forthrightly on political and economic matters, which he reinforced with policy proposals, he was an unsparing critic of the government, ignoring threats from civil servants that they might withdraw the grants Macra relied on. In 1968 he initiated an associate membership scheme whereby commercial firms were invited to provide funding, which doubled Macra’s income within two years. Though also a member of the Cahir branch of the National Farmers’ Association (NFA), Rea asserted Macra’s independence from the NFA, most dramatically by seeking to broker a truce between the association and its bitter rival, the Irish Creamery Milk Supplier’s Association (ICMSA).
Short, stocky, with an intense expression and the personality to match, Rea thrived on controversy, though his preference for confrontation owed more to temperament than to calculation. A gifted orator-cum-rabblerouser, who combined intellect with wit, he was prone to making gratuitous jibes and becoming intoxicated by his own rhetoric, which made him many enemies. Off-stage, he was more constructive, personable even, a font of gossip, opinion and jokes.
The scourge of local creamery managers as chairman and secretary of the NFA’s Cahir branch in the early 1960s, he continued in that vein as president of the South Tipperary NFA executive from 1970 to 1974 – during which time the NFA became the Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA) – and as a member of the IFA’s dairy committee by the mid-1970s. Canvassing of supplier shareholders in the 1960s saw him elected to the boards of Cahir Livestock Mart, Clover Meats and the Mitchelstown Cooperative, where he clashed with management, resigning acrimoniously from the Clover Meats board in 1976. His stints as a board member of the Agricultural Institute (1967–70) and as chairman of the Farm Apprenticeship Board (1969–76) also ended following disputes with state officials.
A regular Irish Farmers’ Journal columnist from 1970, he wrote well-argued opinion pieces in an entertainingly caustic vein, drawing a satirical cartoon for each. He found a kindred spirit and long-term ally in the Journal’s editor Paddy O’Keeffe (qv). From November 1971 the Journal published (on a monthly basis) his long running, avidly read and controversial ‘milk league’, wherein he compared the milk prices paid by cooperative creameries, exposing big discrepancies. Discovering that he could not get useful cost breakdowns even as a cooperative board member, he effected needed change, along with better returns for farmers, by urging his readers to focus on milk prices as the best available yardstick and to meet funding calls only in return for greater efficiency and transparency.
His crusade against the cooperatives disturbed many IFA officials, including the president T. J. Maher (qv). Rea, moreover, vocally opposed Maher’s preference for friendlier relations with the government amid the European subsidy-fuelled agricultural boom that followed Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1972. A disastrous cattle glut during 1973–4 spurred Rea to agitate for calf exports as a means of rebalancing the market, further irritating the IFA leadership. This proposal infuriated large beef farmers and meat processors (the main calf buyers, domestically) but through his efforts a sizeable trade with Italy developed in the latter half of the 1970s.
In 1976 Rea became IFA vice-president, under the wing of Paddy Lane (qv), the victorious insurgent candidate in that year’s presidential election. The Lane–Rea ticket prevailed by sweeping the small farmer vote, though they themselves were agents of the large dairy farmers, concentrated mostly in Munster, who, despite being the big winners from the EEC bonanza, felt that they lacked the commensurate pull within the IFA. Power rested instead with a wealthy clique, varying in their mode of farming, but all based near the IFA’s Irish Farm Centre headquarters at Bluebell, Co. Dublin: known as the ‘Farm Centre caucus’, this group had many allies within the IFA’s sixty-strong staff.
Aiming to centralise and professionalise operations at Bluebell, Rea and Lane were soon locked in a running battle with their administrators. They were able to assert themselves with only partial success, not least because the tight-knit Farm Centre caucus maintained its power base within the IFA’s network of elected national committees. The struggle put a premium on Rea’s media panache and capacity for rallying the grassroots and he devoted himself to his unpaid vice-presidential duties, being abstemious in claiming expenses. At a national level, as the IFA used the political muscle inherent in its 130,000-plus membership to extort tax concessions and improved subsidies – highlighting its status as one of Ireland’s most powerful lobbies – Rea came to personify the new leadership’s more aggressive, publicity-driven promotion of farmers’ interests, particularly its ‘poor mouthing’ in defiance of economic reality.
His populist wooing of small farmers was nonetheless at odds with his belief that Irish farming needed to progress along large-scale, commercial lines. The EEC’s generosity, spread widely, albeit unevenly, allowed him to elide this contradiction, as did the extremism with which he pursued stances that all parts of the IFA’s volatile coalition of farming interests could agree on. Demagoguery aside, he was strong on policy detail and personally devised his speeches and press releases; having few outside interests, except watching hurling, he spent his spare time reading economics and current affairs journals. In debates and interviews he buried adversaries with statistics, leavened by arresting catchphrases and lucid analogies.
His seemingly assured succession as IFA president was undone by heavily taxed wage-earners’ anger at the paltry sums being extracted from a thriving farm sector. The IFA leadership’s inability to agree taxation terms with the government led to the imposition in February 1979 of a sales levy that hit all farmers equally. Under pressure from enraged smallholders, Rea fulminated performatively, infamously declaring ‘the gloves are off’ before the government agreed to rescind the levy if the farm organisations settled on a viable alternative. This apparent government capitulation produced an unprecedented backlash from wage earners, some 200,000 of whom participated in anti-payroll tax demonstrations on 20 March 1979 which were also as much about urging a farmer tax. Appalled IFA members blamed Rea for mobilising the non-farming majority against them.
Amid much in-fighting, the IFA was fumbling towards acceptance of an accounts-based income tax; Rea, however, recognised that the state lacked the administrative capacity to raise much money through that mechanism, all but guaranteeing further arbitrary levies. He proposed instead a flat rate per acre, which would move in line with changes in national farm income. Although this would have encouraged productivity, been easy to collect and removed the need for farmers to hire accountants, it took little account of ability to pay, tolerated a more than doubling of the agricultural tax take and was egregiously iniquitous, being tailor-made for intensive dairymen. His proposal was especially poorly received by small farmers and rejected by a decisive majority of IFA members.
Rea then disconcerted his sectoral base in September 1979 by announcing his switch from dairy to tillage, specifically sugar beet, malting barley and winter wheat. His 165-strong herd had been ravaged by disease, whereas crop growing required less investment and allowed more time for off-farm activism. But, in a further blow to his reputation, it emerged that he had used the proceeds from the sale of his cattle to acquire potentially valuable development land in Cahir. As the presidential election neared, the passions aroused for and against Rea were such that he and his opponent, Donnie Cashman, agreed to a limited canvass for fear of an IFA split. Cashman’s pledge to represent farmers in a more diplomatic manner ultimately condemned Rea to a shock landslide defeat in the March 1980 ballot.
Remaining active on the IFA’s grain and credit committees, he sniped at Cashman in the Farmers’ Journal and toured branches preaching militancy. He found a receptive audience, as Cashman’s softly-softly approach delivered little during a prolonged agricultural depression from 1979. Most members, however, believed Cashman had no choice, given the damage Rea had inflicted on urban–rural relations.
All changed in August 1983 when it emerged that Cashman and eleven top IFA officials had signed an open letter opposing the proposed anti-abortion amendment to the constitution, which had the support of the catholic church. Internal uproar ensued over this engagement with a highly charged, non-farming issue, threatening disaster for an organisation that combined an overwhelmingly catholic membership with a disproportionately protestant leadership (including half of the letter’s signatories). Rea kept quiet and then, as tempers frayed during a crucial national council meeting on 23 August, impressed everyone with a calming appeal for unity and clemency. His rivals had all discredited themselves, and the Farm Centre caucus was split with many of its leading members now backing his revived presidential bid. He held off declaring his candidacy, professing indifference, but his supporters were busy canvassing for him while he was seen upholding farmers’ interests on television and in print. As the county conventions nominated presidential candidates during January 1984, it became clear that he would win. The sole challenger quit, enabling Rea’s unopposed coronation.
On assuming office that March, he inherited a formidable general secretary, Michael Berkery, who he let get on with – and take the flak for – moulding a more biddable administration capable of asserting Rea’s authority across the IFA’s dispersed power structures. They developed a formidable partnership. Rea set the tone through provocative, socially divisive speeches that blamed the farming depression on the rising costs and high interest rates being generated by unsustainable government spending, excessive wage demands and a bloated state sector.
Throwing himself into his role, he made an immediate impression by preventing a milk price cut by Bord Bainne, the state-guaranteed Irish dairy export agency. That summer, he decided the outcome of crucial dairy cooperative wage talks by exhorting farmers to drive creamery trucks in the event of a strike, effectively breaking the trade unions in that sector. Likewise, his expansion of the programme for analysing the validity of farm costs and produce prices initially delivered better value for members, at least until the cooperatives discredited IFA tests on the butterfat content of creamery milk in autumn 1986.
PARTY POLITICS, FARM POLITICS
Writing off the Fine Gael–Labour coalition government (1982–7) as beholden to Labour’s anti-farmer agenda, he scorned the Fine Gael agriculture minister, Austin Deasy, for knowing little about farming and lacking influence at cabinet. Deasy was a poor communicator, and Rea, sensing vulnerability, attacked him relentlessly, their increasingly vitriolic public exchanges causing unease among IFA officials, most of whom were Fine Gael supporters. Rea had Fine Gael family links – his brother Richard was on the national executive – but he wanted to distance the IFA from the party.
Accordingly, he resisted the government’s proposed land tax, unembarrassed by its similarities with his earlier flat rate proposal. Upholding a taxation-on-accounts system with a convert’s zeal, he backed the government into a corner in September 1984 by aggressively lobbying rural Fine Gael deputies. Although the land tax was enacted, he judged correctly that little or no money would be collected because the required land survey would take years. And time was on his side thanks to the open alliance he formed in 1985 with the Fianna Fáil leader and likely future taoiseach, Charles Haughey (qv). Rea’s implacability on this issue wrecked his attempt to negotiate an IFA–ICMSA merger, a long-held goal that he had pursued at some political cost. The unity talks collapsed in November 1985, mainly because a land tax better suited the small-to-middling dairy farmers that dominated the ICMSA.
By 1985 IFA members were complaining that Rea’s tours of local branches produced only top-down communications and that he and Berkery were deciding everything between themselves, heedless of the elected committees. Furthermore, their new creation, the president’s committee, replaced the much-larger national council as the main policy-making forum. It was a bureaucratic power grab, partly dictated by the organisational paralysis previously engendered by the IFA’s unwieldy network of elected committees. Also conscious of how his vice-presidency had ended in a budgetary crisis, Rea perpetuated retrenchments that restored the IFA’s financial health but fell heavily on expenses for attending meetings; this accelerated the recession-driven decline in members’ participation, thereby cementing the political dominance of the wealthiest farmers even as they lost executive authority.
Hard times meant hard choices, and small farmers were not his priority, prompting defections to the ICMSA. Most members, however, were heartened to see the IFA fighting its corner more effectively, most obviously during the disastrously wet summers of 1985 and 1986 when Rea wrung relatively generous aid measures from an unsympathetic, cash-strapped government. He generally had his way without undue fuss, ruthlessly quelling those who openly challenged his authority, his position underpinned by the growing economic clout of the big dairy farmers, his core constituency. The only wobble came in September 1986, when he revived IFA members’ fears about his rhetorical excesses by riling non-farmers with a sarcastic aside about the government’s speedy response to the flooding of a Dublin suburb.
THE BIG PICTURE
More discriminating than before in choosing his battles, as president Rea generally distanced himself from the less defensible irruptions of farmer militancy, disappointing those who had been his most fervent supporters. There were also occasional gestures towards public opinion, such as when he successfully urged crop growers to donate some of the proceeds of a bumper 1984 harvest to Ethiopian famine victims, and when he directed an anti-pollution campaign in 1987 that produced a sharp fall in fish kills from farm pollution.
An adroit Brussels lobbyist, well-versed in the EEC’s intricacies, Rea saw that its power brokers were turning against the wasteful overproduction arising from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); he acquiesced tacitly with the freeze put on farm produce price supports, which helped him in pressing for compensating devaluations in the ‘green pound’ exchange rate governing Ireland’s agricultural trade with the EEC. He eased the IFA away from its commitment to preserving CAP entirely towards a more propitious strategy of favouring production quotas as an alternative to price cuts, completing this delicate policy shift in autumn 1986 when he publicly acknowledged the inevitability of CAP reform.
He was at his most constructive on the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), which comprised of social partners (government, trade unions, employers and farm organisations) who advised on economic policy. During one meeting, his passionate appeal for a unified response to the worsening economic crisis inspired those present to look past their sectional interests, culminating in the publication in November 1986 of a seminal report, A strategy for development. It recommended offering the trade unions lower payroll taxes and tax reforms directed against the self-employed (farmers included), in return for wage restraint and state spending cuts. If the final draft bore the outline of earlier IFA proposals, there was much that was unpalatable, particularly on CAP, yet Rea endorsed the report unreservedly, aware that unanimity was vital for its implementation and that Haughey was interested.
PARTNERSHIP FOR (SOCIAL) PEACE
Upon becoming taoiseach following the February 1987 general election, Haughey delivered by immediately abolishing the land tax, replacing it with an accounts-based income tax. Rea had Haughey’s ear, allowing him to ignore the underwhelming agriculture minister, Michael O’Kennedy, and he remained strikingly uncritical even as the government slashed spending on agriculture while increasing taxes on farmers. Rea concentrated his fire on the civil servants but his demand for 1,000 job cuts within the Department of Agriculture miscarried, with the axe falling instead upon the farm research and advisory services.
Rea’s focus lay next with the negotiations, initiated by Haughey in summer 1987, for institutionalising a social partnership approach to managing the economy using A strategy for development as the policy blueprint. In signing up to the Programme for National Recovery (PNR) agreed that October, Rea won financial benefits for farmers, commitments on agricultural development initiatives, and endorsements of the IFA line on (crucially) CAP reform and farmer taxation. Against that, he swallowed the imposition of social insurance levies on farmers, whereas the ICMSA withdrew from the PNR on that issue. Haughey kept an under-pressure Rea on board, thus preventing the PNR’s collapse, by watering down and later deferring these levies.
Rea’s resolve in carrying a lukewarm IFA with him on the PNR’s compromises was influenced by the farming community’s waning numerical and economic importance, and by his belief that the sector’s exclusion from earlier ‘national understandings’ had exposed it to trade union machinations. Henceforth, the IFA would more effectively protect its members’ interests by using its position within the social partnership system to promote minimalist CAP reforms and to hinder farmer taxation initiatives while learning how to work the state sector. The process bedded down, confirming the centrality of the IFA (albeit in a spoiling capacity), as well as the marginality of the ICMSA, which lacked the institutional expertise needed to make an impact when it reversed course and joined in 1991.
Rea stepped down in March 1988; he was the last IFA president to be a major national figure, as farming lost significance and Berkery reduced subsequent officeholders to quasi-figurehead status. Rea’s IFA career is a study in how that organisation’s leadership struggled to yoke a turbulent and heterogenous mass membership to a relatively elitist commercial farming agenda, with its inherent internal tensions facilitating his overthrow of a ruling clique that lacked the political skills and demagogic flair needed for such a tricky balancing act. His presidentialism, although carried out in the name of the ordinary members, sapped their activist spirit by hollowing out the IFA’s intermediate elected structures; paid administrators were empowered at the expense of volunteer-officials. But if the entity that emerged could not inspire the same fervour as before, it was more consistent and effective in pursuing its (narrower) goals.
In September 1988 Haughey appointed Rea chairman of Teagasc, the newly formed semi-state amalgamation of the farm advisory and research services. A part-time chairman on a yearly salary of £6,000, he treated it like a full-time job, even moving temporarily to Dublin, where Teagasc was headquartered. Further to coping with the outflow of talent and experience that followed an indiscriminately operated voluntary redundancy program, which reduced the workforce from 2,300 to less than 1,400 between 1987–9, Rea was expected to advance the commercialisation of Teagasc’s activities as well as the integration of its advisory and research functions. But he lacked defined executive powers in tackling a sprawling, unionised bureaucracy that was hard-set in its ways and riven by diverging interests.
An underfunded Teagasc slid into chaos and financial crisis from 1989 after he tried to push through changes without the staff unions’ consent, exacerbating matters with his off-the-cuff media comments. He reserved his spleen for the organisation’s managers, accusing them of overspending wilfully and of refusing to implement restructuring plans mandated by the board, but his political backers did not want to know. Although Teagasc’s advisory services were eventually rejuvenated by the phased introduction of fees, the research arm suffered a lost decade and the process of integrating the two failed completely.
By 1991 he had stepped back from Teagasc but kept feuding with its management at board meetings, and was obviously the source for a series of embarrassing leaks to the press. After the government declined to reappoint him as chairman when his five-year term expired in 1993, he went public on how the management had spent money without the board’s authorisation and had gone behind his back in flouting a job recruitment embargo, detailing this to a dáil committee in 1995. No one showed much interest, leaving him discredited and disillusioned.
Rea continued to publish his splenetic commentary and infamous ‘milk league’ in the Irish Farmer’s Journal across his career; he was also a long-serving member of the Journal’s board of directors and of the IFA-controlled company, Farmer Business Developments (best known in later years for its general insurance and financial services divisions). In 1993 he published a collection of his columns, Frankly speaking. As a beet supplier to monopoly buyer Greencore, he harassed its management at every annual general meeting over prices, founding a noisy farmer shareholder pressure group, Greenshare, in 2000. The following year he established the N8 Action Group (NAG) to oppose the construction of the Cahir area section of a long-distance motorway – one of the proposed routes partitioned his farm. He threatened to stand as a NAG candidate in that year’s Tipperary South by-election, ruling himself out only after holding talks with the main political parties. The motorway went ahead but gave his farm a wide berth.
Following a short illness, Joe Rea died in his home at Farmlee House on 30 June 2007 and, despite describing himself latterly as not formally religious, was given a funeral mass with his remains being interred in the cemetery at St Kieran’s Church, Ballylooby, Cahir. Rea exhibited all the strengths and flaws that emanate from a surfeit of ambition, merit, drive, pugnacity, ruthlessness and vision. There were parallels with Charles Haughey: in pursuing power, both men drew upon their populist proclivities to politically advantageous, yet socially toxic, effect before operating in a more technocratic manner once secure in office, most fruitfully when they made common cause in building Ireland’s successful social partnership model.