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‘You can go for a drink with Francie or you can go into any ministerial meeting with him – he is that type of person’

When Michael McEvoy from Spink encouraged Francie Gorman to get involved in the IFA a long number of years ago now, neither man could have predicted that it would end with election to the highest position in the country’s leading farm organisation.

But on Tuesday evening, in time for RTE’s Six One news, the Spink native and now Ballinakill branch member, was officially announced as the 17th president of the IFA.

It’s no mean feat to climb to the top of an organisation like the IFA, one that has over 70,000 members and 941 branches dotted around the country.

From the top of Donegal to the most westerly points in Cork and Kerry the association has a presence.

And in his bid to become president, Gorman and his team had canvassed widely in recent months in an organisation that is extremely wide and varied in its own right in the various sectors that it represents – dairy, beef, sheep, tillage, poultry, piggery and forestry.

In all Gorman polled 16,699 votes, ahead of Limerick’s Martin Stapleton who had 13,210.

There was a joyous mood among his large band of supporters in the Castleknock Hotel where the count had taken place after the result was made official.

As well as a strong showing from the various Laois IFA officers from around the county, he was joined by his wife Kay, nine-year-old son Tom, brothers James, Tom and Martin, sister Liz, brother-in-law Eamon Kennedy and a selection of other in-laws and nieces and nephews.

The turnout fell just below 30,000 but up about 8,000 on what it was four years ago, primarily on the back of the introduction of postal votes for the first time.

The lobby and bar and restaurant areas of the bustling hotel were beautifully festive and in one of the large conference rooms the IFA election count was in full swing from early morning.

At the centre of the room was a digital map of Ireland. When the day started all the counties were showing grey to depict that the voting was yet to be completed. If Gorman won a particular county, it turned green. If Stapleton won, it went orange.

The brilliant IFA blog on their website had live figures for each county as they came in and was updated as new figures were confirmed.

Gorman got out in front early in the day and stayed there as slowly but surely more counties on the map turned green. He took every county in Leinster and Connacht and the three in Ulster.

The six Munster counties (nine branches when you consider the three in Cork and two in Tipperary) went orange for Stapleton.

But they are big agricultural counties and while Gorman didn’t win the overall vote there, he did very well, claiming 28% of the vote in Munster. And that battleground was key in his success.

He got 522 out of the the 1,357 in Clare, 815 out of the 1,923 across North and South Tipperary and 579 out of the 1,773 in Kerry. Across the three Cork branches, he got over 1,100.

“We are very satisfied,” said campaign manager Pat Hennessy from Ballaghmore in the immediate aftermath.

“I’m delighted for the team, delighted for Francie and the family but particularly for the Laois team that was behind Francie.

“God almighty, every Sunday night in Portlaoise rugby club (where the weekly campaign meetings were held), the crowds were getting bigger.

“It started off at about 40 and finished up at 70 or 80 people. All willing to work and get behind Francie, because they all believed in him and all believed that he would make a great president

“Without doubt we know he will be.”

Hennessy, who had fought presidential campaigns in the past for Laois candidates Jer Bergin and Henry Burns, who both fell short, said it was a huge relief to get over the line on this occasion – but knew exactly how Martin Stapleton and his team were feeling.

“It is a great relief to us because nobody could call it up until yesterday.

“People were telling us that you are going great, you have it won. We were winning Leinster, north Leinster, Connacht getting on very well.

“But the big IFA vote is in Munster and we knew we were up against it there and if we could crack Munster it would be a big help.

“Munster was very strong for us – way above what we expected.

“That is down to Francie’s personality on the hustings. People got to know him and got to know the type of person he was. We are absolutely thrilled.”

That likeable, approachable personality was a massive contributory factor in Gorman’s success – and that coupled with his strong public speaking and negotiation skills makes him ideal for such a role, representing farmers in the political world.

“A lot of years I know Francie. I know his passion for IFA and for farming and farming incomes,” added Hennessy.

“You can go for a drink with Francie or you can go into any ministerial meeting or board room with him, he is that type of person. No matter what he does, he has passion in him.”

“Absolutely a very proud Laois man today,” said Gorman himself.

“Why wouldn’t I be. I had terrific support from the county executive led by John Fitzpatrick as chairman. Particularly Pat Hennessy as campaign manager and Anne Marie Aird – they were tireless in the work they did for me.

“You’d have to mention Henry Burns and Jer Bergin as well – two people who ran for president and know what it’s like to lose it.

“And for them to go out and put in the work for me over the past four months was completely selfless and to me exemplifies the very best of IFA membership.”

Gorman says he is looking forward to formally starting his role in January.

“There are a number of very pressing issues that have to be delivered on immediately. There won’t be a resolution for two or three years – CAP might be five years.

“But those negotiations around Nitrates and CAP reform are starting now and if we don’t have policies clear in our head as farmers and get in there and make sure they understand what we want immediately, we’ll only be tinkering around the edges in two or three years time.

“I am absolutely looking forward to getting stuck in. We have some great voluntary officers in the organisation elected currently to committee chairs.

“It will be a new council taking over in January – there are big, big changes always on that council. 20+ members on a 58-member council going off so it’s going to be a completely different council. There is an opportunity there for the president to drive on and lead in a unified fashion.”

Gorman added that he was delighted to see Wexford’s Alice Doyle elected as first female deputy president.

“It is a huge achievement and it shows that irrespective of what your gender is farmers are prepared to vote for a male or female. I’m looking forward to working with her over the four years.”

As for the vote, once they started to tally in his favour early in the day he had a strong sense that he was well on his way.

“I said it to one of the lads last night. If you have a trend from early in the day in an election, it does generally follow. Not always but most of the time.

“From early on the trend was with me and then when you’re picking up votes all over the country, that is a great sign.

“We had good support in Munster. I’ve been involved in the national council now for seven years and people in that part of the country know me. They probably say ‘we’ll get what we see with Francie Gorman’.

“You’d be thinking of my mam and dad and Kay’s mam and dad who are not with us any more,” he added poignantly as he referenced his strong family support.

“We always backed each other as a family. Eamon who is married to my sister Liz, there is no better fella in the country to put his shoulder to the wheel when you’re in bother.

“And in fairness to Kay and Tom, I have massive support from the two of them in anything I’ve ever wanted to do on the farm.

“Whether it was in terms of investing money or when I got involved in IFA, I always had 100% support going out the door.”

And with his various media duties fulfilled – interviews with RTE, the Farmers Journal, Agriland, the Irish Independent and LaoisToday – and a selection of photos organised, it was time to hit the road, where a homecoming of sorts was being held in the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel, the same location he officially launched his campaign in and where countless IFA meetings have been held over the years.

In January, he’ll formally replace Tim Cullinan and become the first Laois man since Padraig Walsh to take on the IFA presidency.

Big boots to fill and a big responsibility now falls on his shoulders.

Like everything he’s done down the years, though, you can be sure he’s ready to tackle this head on now too.

SEE ALSO – LoveLaois Podcast: Francie Gorman on his bid to become the next IFA president