Farmer’s three-day sit-in at Dairygold in row over shares and disputed payments

His three-day sit-in at Dairygold Co-op’s boardroom may have landed him in the High Court, but dairy farmer Ned McCarthy remains adamant: “I’m definitely not going to give up on getting my money.”

Farmer’s three-day sit-in at Dairygold in row over shares and disputed payments

Mr McCarthy, who claims he is owed €23,000 by Dairygold in shares and other payments, says he intends to pursue the matter via the Circuit Court.

“All I want is for Dairygold to pay me what’s owed me and then I can move on,” said Mr McCarthy, who was served with a temporary injunction by the co-operative when he refused to leave its premises in Mitchelstown last month.

His subsequent appearance in the High Court saw the matter struck out, with claims for costs not pursued and Dairygold agreeing not to continue with a full injunction application.

Mr McCarthy had arrived with a sleeping bag, pillow, and food supplies, at a meeting last month with the board of the co-operative, and proceeded to occupy Dairygold’s boardroom when discussions on his shareholding in the co-op broke down.

The proprietor of McCarthy’s Natural Dairy, Mr McCarthy milks 50 cows in Cill na Martra, near Macroom, and was formerly a supplier to Dairygold.

He was one of a small number of the co-op’s 3,000 dairy farmers who ceased supplying Dairygold last year, some deciding to switch to the Co Tipperary-based Arrabawn Co-op, as a result of their dissatisfaction with Dairygold’s milk supply agreement introduced in 2012, in preparation for the lifting of EU milk quota restrictions in 2015.

The milk supply agreement was part of Dairygold’s plans for expansion of its processing capacity in order to accommodate a projected 50% increase in milk production from its suppliers in a post-quota environment.

Many farmers have had to increase the number of shares they held in the co-operative, as part of the supply agreement.

Mr McCarthy was among a group of former milk suppliers invited by Dairygold to meet with its board on March 10 in its Mitchelstown offices, to discuss their position with the co-operative and the issue of their shareholdings, prior to a decision being taken on their continuing membership.

He claims that, having ceased supplying the society, he is owed €23,000 by Dairygold, including €18,000 in shares, plus bonuses, and money from a revolving fund (a 2013-2019 contribution by milk suppliers to the co-op’s funding, repaid with interest after the seven years).

While the shares value is not disputed, it is understood that the bonuses are contested by Dairygold on the basis that these were given only to those who agreed to sign the milk supply agreement.

Dairygold’s stance was that former suppliers could transfer their shares into loan notes that could be redeemed when they reach the age of 65, in accordance with its rule-book.

The co-op subsequently proposed that the farmers could receive their share value in five annual phased payments of 20% each, beginning five years from the date their membership ceased, the final instalment to be paid at the end of year nine following their departure.

The Irish Examiner understands that the co-op is concerned to ensure any redemption by members of their shareholdings should be conducted on a carefully managed basis, and that it is unwilling to make an exception for Mr McCarthy.

Mr McCarthy, however, is adamant that he should now receive the full amount of his shareholding.

A group of former suppliers individually met the board on Thursday, March 10. During Mr McCarthy’s meeting, discussions broke down, in part over his request to leave his mobile phone on a call.

Mr McCarthy says he is dyslexic, and wished to have a record of his exchanges with the board noted by a third party.

Equipped with bottles of water, bananas, and tins of baked beans, as well as food brought in by a group of supporters gathered outside the offices, Mr McCarthy then occupied the premises from the time the board members departed the room following the breakdown of the meeting, until he left as a result of the temporary injunction at about 11.30pm on Saturday, March 12.

“I felt I had no choice but to do what I did,” said Mr McCarthy.

“I had the right to peacefully protest in a property that I was a shareholder in.”

The Dairygold board made a decision later on March 10 that 15 of the former milk suppliers should be removed from the society and their shares cancelled, ruling at 4.45pm that Mr McCarthy’s shareholding be cancelled.

“In my view, they couldn’t kick me out, because I was a part-owner of the building,” said Mr McCarthy.

“They had to expel me as a shareholder before they could throw me out.

“According to the board, I was expelled on (March 10), and they then proceeded to issue proceedings against me.”

He pointed to legislation governing co-operative societies, as a barrier to him seeking the repayment of the value of his shares via the courts while he was a shareholder.

“At the heart of co-op law is a problem. I can’t seek the protection of the court as a shareholder. I could go to arbitration, but that could cost up to €40,000, so I didn’t think I had any affordable legal avenue to go down,” he said.

“I’m not a solicitor. I’m just an ordinary farmer from West Cork and I don’t believe I was doing anything wrong.”

Mr McCarthy now says he plans to take a Circuit Court action once the required six months have elapsed since his shareholding was cancelled, and asserts that other former suppliers with shareholdings of lower value are considering taking claims at district court level in a bid to recover the value of their shares.

Co-op described matter as a ‘continuing distraction’

At the High Court in Dublin on April 5, Dairygold Co-Operative Society’s injunction application against Ned McCarthy was struck out by Mr Justice Paul Gilligan.

Dairygold then issued a statement saying: “The board of the society had agreed to remove this matter as a continuing distraction and not to pursue the full injunction application or seek related costs on the basis of Mr McCarthy’s commitment to the court at the previous hearing on 14 March 2016, that he would not trespass again on Dairygold’s property and that he would reconfirm that position at (the April 5) hearing.”

Responding to the society’s reference to the matter as a “continuing distraction”, Mr McCarthy said: “I believe that as Dairygold are now paying the worst price for milk in the country, they have a lot more to distract them.”

(The co-op was last of 15 in the Irish Farmers Journal’s February milk price league. However, the comparison showed Dairygold paying more than Glanbia or Kerry).

Mr McCarthy added that far from distracting the board members from their business with his sit-in, it was his own time that was taken up by the matter.

“They were able to continue their meeting. I didn’t waste their time, they wasted my time taking me up to the High Court. I didn’t take them to the High Court, they took me.”

Mr McCarthy’s actions attracted considerable attention, with a crowd gathering outside Dairygold’s Mitchelstown offices while his sit-in was in progress, and supporters cheering him as he exited the building.

His protest drew comment on social media, and he was on Joe Duffy’s ‘Liveline’, as well as on local radio. Mr McCarthy has even written his own song about the saga, which he has posted on his Facebook page.

“I have had overwhelming support from people on social media and from people calling to me,” he said.

“Even outside of the farming community, people respect the right of the individual to make a stand against the big organisation.”

Questions were put to a Dairygold representative by the Irish Examiner on issues including the value of shares and other payments claimed by Mr McCarthy to be owed to him; whether the co-operative will consider paying Mr McCarthy the value of his shareholding immediately; what terms had been offered by Dairygold for the return of his shareholding; the current status of the shareholdings of the former Dairygold suppliers; and its position on Mr McCarthy’s right to peaceful protest on Dairygold property.

The representative was further asked whether Dairygold would seek to resolve the situation in advance of any possible Circuit Court action by Mr McCarthy.

The society replied with the following statement: “Dairygold is a co-operative society with over 8,000 members and the same rules and policies apply to each and every member. Dairygold has made its position clear to the court and does not wish to comment further on the matter.”

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