Maybe minister

Minister of State Tom Parlon has deflected controversy successfully since his appointment in 2002 but the ex-IFA president faces an uncertain future as next year's election approaches. By Frank Connolly

Tom Parlon, the latest ex-Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) leader to enter politics, was appointed as a junior minister following his success in the 2002 general election as a candidate for the Progressive Democrats in Laois-Offaly. He had strong support from the farming community familiar to him from his long career as deputy leader, then treasurer and finally president of one of the country's most powerful lobbies. He also won significant support from the beet-growing farmers in the midlands, having negotiated a reasonably favourable deal for them in one of his final acts as IFA president in 2001.

The successful negotiations with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment brought Parlon into direct contact with the then minister and PD leader Mary Harney, who was clearly impressed with the IFA leader and soon afterwards enticed him into the party in advance of the 2002 general election.

Parlon is a canny operator and held separate discussions with former Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan up to 24 hours before he announced his decision to join the PDs. At the end of the day he was promised at least a junior ministry by Harney while the best offer from Fine Gael was a clear run for the European Parliament in Leinster in elections two years later.

Clearly, the native of Coolderry near Birr made the right decision and his appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW) was a handsome reward for the first-time TD, even though Parlon would have preferred a full ministry. Following Mary Harney's sudden resignation as PD leader in September 2006, Parlon was offered the position of party president, albeit reluctantly, by Michael McDowell to ensure the justice minister's unchallenged accession to the leadership.

As minister in charge of the OPW, his most important responsibility, supervising the decentralisation of government offices, has been something of a disaster. As his second general election approaches, he faces an uncertain future. His effort at mobilising support for multiple candidates put forward at the local elections in 2004 was a spectacular failure, with just two councillors elected for the party. His support among the beet growers in the midlands has dissipated since that particular farming enterprise has been wiped out with the closure of the sugar factory in neighbouring Co Carlow. The decentralisation debacle, while not all of his own making, is one of this administration's most notable failures and, although it remains government policy, it is clear that only a fraction of those required to move from departments and semi-state bodies are willing to leave Dublin.

One of the chosen locations for decentralisation which has been most controversial is in Parlon's political base of Birr in Co Offaly. During the 2002 election campaign, Parlon and his canvassers made a great play of promising hundreds of decentralised jobs to the town if he was elected. After the election, a site was chosen for the headquarters of Fás, the state employment agency. The plan was to build a new headquarters for 400 head-office staff currently based in Baggot Street, Dublin.

A bitter dispute has erupted between the management and unions who have complained about a policy of linking internal promotions in head office to decentralisation. Attempts to resolve the row, which led to Siptu pickets outside Baggot Street earlier this year, have come to nothing and the issue has been referred to the Labour Court. Four years later, only two members of staff have been moved to Birr and they are in rented accommodation in a refurbished mill in the town. Negotiations over the purchase of the property have been protracted and are still not complete due to a problem over access to the site on the Tullamore Road.

Coincidentally, the lands intended for the new Fás headquarters were formerly owned by a close friend and supporter of Parlon.

Pascal Campbell, a building contractor from Birr, purchased the lands several years ago at agricultural prices. After they were rezoned for commercial and residential use, he sold the large site to Catholic social-housing agency Respond, which obtained a controversial planning permission to build more than 300 houses on the land. Following an approach from Fás, Respond agreed to dispose of part of their extensive holding to the employment agency but the sale has not yet been closed due to access and a delay over the finalisation of the site plan.

Campbell, who was once an elected PD councillor in Birr, was also appointed by Tom Parlon as a member of the board of Bord na Móna, on which he currently serves.

Another associate and neighbour of Parlon's, and an unsuccessful PD candidate in the 2004 local elections, Liam Egan, is now managing director of Eurotags, a company which distributes cattle tags from its plant at the Mullinahone Co-operative in Co Tipperary. Egan headed the IFA's animal-health committee while Parlon was president. He took his new position with Eurotags prior to the award by the Department of Agriculture of the exclusive contract to distribute the cattle tags for the 2.5 million national herd to the Mullinahone cooperative.

Eurotags also won the contract, worth up to €4m, when it was re-awarded by the department three years ago, and for a third time two months ago. A number of firms that competed for the tender, including the Ballymena-based Quicktag and west of Ireland firm TJ Gormley, have complained that the tendering process was unfairly weighted against them and have sought an inquiry into the contract. While Parlon has no role in the award of such tenders, many in the cattle business believe that Eurotags were favoured because of the historical closeness of senior department officials to the IFA leadership.

Tom Parlon has enjoyed some commercial success himself in recent years. He made a killing when he sold land at his holding in Coolderry, where he still farms, for a housing development, having successfully applied for rezoning from agricultural use to residential. He recently turned the sod on that same land for the exclusive property development.

But all is not rosy in the PD camp in Laois-Offaly following two recent opinion polls in the five-seat constituency which predicted that Tom Parlon will be in a tough contest with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for the fifth seat. It is not surprising that many of Parlon's press statements in recent months target Fine Gael and, in particular, the supposed threat to farmers posed by the Green Party should it become part of a Fine Gael-led coalition.

Last week one of his competitors in the constituency, Sean Fleming of Fianna Fáil, fired a warning shot in Parlon's direction after it emerged that the full allocation for the restoration of Dunamase Castle in Co Laois, provided under the National Development Plan 2000-2006, had not been spent on the project.

The OPW announced that the cost of restoration works on the historic site fell €300,000 short of the agreed allocation of €1.9m. While Parlon insisted that this was an example of prudent financial management by his department, Fleming and others said that it was a case of the full government funding not being drawn down for a project that is many millions short of completion.

Parlon shrugged off the criticism as he did previously when he was photographed with a fencing product produced at a sawmills in Leap close to his family farm in county Offaly. Parlon publicly supported the firm, T&J Standish, despite proven claims that the company had seriously polluted a local river and had operated without planning permission.

In July of last year, Parlon controversially appeared in a newspaper advertisement endorsing a particular brand of calf nuts. His appearance holding a big sack of the nuts supplied by the agri-food company owned by a friend, John Grennan, provoked allegations of improper conduct unbecoming of a minister.

Parlon insisted he received no payment for the endorsement but the Standards in Public Office Commission rebuked the junior minister for his behaviour. It did not do his reputation any harm in what he famously dubbed Parlon Country prior to the 2002 general election but the junior minister from Birr knows well that at next year's contest his political future is certainly at stake.