Global dairy prices have tumbled, forcing farmers in Ireland and across the European Union to sell milk for below production cost.
The dairy industry is subject to cyclical volatility due to a variety of issues including the weather, sluggish markets and geo-politics. But the current slump is lasting longer than expected and is causing a lot of grief to producers and processors.
However, it is also helping to put into focus a campaign for higher milk prices conducted 50 years ago by the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association. That resulted in 452 men being arrested on multiple dates by gardaí for picketing within half a mile of Leinster House when Dáil Éireann was in session.
Section 28 of the Offences Against the State Act was invoked against the farmers and caused a major stand-off between the government and the ICMSA.
The farmers explained they were producing full cream milk for 2¾d a pint and were working a seven-day 70-hour week to do so.
They mandated their association to picket the Dáil when it resumed after the Easter recess on April 27 and made it known that if arrested they would not pay any fines imposed by the courts. They were prepared to go to jail.
The government said the cost to the exchequer of supporting creamery milk prices in that financial year would be well over £12m. An increase of 1d per gallon on the milk price would add another £2m to the bill.
But the ICMSA responded that the gross average income for one of the State’s 110,000 creamery milk suppliers was £360 per year or just over £1 per day: “Our case for a two-tier milk price increase is now fully justified. We have asked for 4d gallon increase for the first 7,000 gallons delivered to creameries by each farmer, with 2d per gallon thereafter.”
The government insisted that the cost of what the ICMSA was seeking would be £5-£6m a year and warned it was not possible to meet this demand given the state of the public finances.
But the ICMSA, with claimed membership of 80,000, insisted dairy farmers were in a desperate situation and went ahead with a plan of campaign, taking the title and inspiration from the Land League. It was organised with precision. This was not surprising because the leaders were two respected War of Independence veterans, who were both arrested during the picketing.
John Feely, the president from Fedamore, had served with the Mid Limerick Brigade. Deputy president, Comdt Paddy O’Brien, Liscarroll, had been second in command in North Cork to Sean Moylan, who was, ironically, minister for agriculture when he died in 1957.
The government had warned the ICMSA about embarking on a course of action that would bring it into conflict with the law but the country’s second largest farmers’ body stayed defiant. Gardaí formally served notice on the picketing men that they were committing an offence, asked them to disperse and told them they would be arrested if they did not do so.
The picketing continued. As a result, hundreds of farmers were arrested. They were taken away in Garda ‘Black Marias’. Some were brought in groups of eight before Dublin District Court, which sat late to process the cases. Others were held overnight in the Bridewell or Pearse Street Garda Stations.
All were treated well by the Gardaí who described them in court as having behaved in a “peaceable and orderly fashion.” There were some 50 charge sheets and the cases were adjourned to a later date.
Agriculture minister Charles Haughey infuriated the ICMSA when he described the protest during a Dáil debate as “the circus outside”. A 16-man delegation from the National Farmers’ Association also passed an ICMSA picket on its way into Government Buildings for an annual day-long farm income review with the minister and his senior officials.
The NFA said it had sought the meeting long before the picketing began; had postponed it in an effort to form a common front approach to the income crisis; and had invited the ICMSA to form a joint deputation to the minister but this was rejected.
After much agonising, the NFA said it had no option but to immediately pursue its own detailed demands in the normal way on behalf of its 120,000 members with a view to improving the position of all farmers, many of whom were said to be existing on an income of £4 a week.
But the ICMSA, furious with the NFA, said it could not break trust with dairy farmers by entering into negotiations when so many of them were facing charges for picketing in pursuit of a milk price increase.
It saw the NFA action as a calculated move to muscle in on its campaign and claimed the country was astounded that any responsible farming organisation should meet with the minister when farmers were before the courts. The bitterness between the two bodies lasted a long time.
Earlier in the campaign, four ICMSA members with placards took up secondary picketing outside Government Buildings at 9.30am on a bright summer’s morning.
A state car suddenly pulled up beside the footpath and a well-dressed man alighted from the front passenger seat.
But instead of going around the front of the car and straight into his office, Charles Haughey walked to the back of it, bringing him into line with the picket. “Good morning, gentlemen. Lovely weather”, he smiled. The farmers returned his warm greeting. The mood music changed for the better.
Mr Haughey later that month announced a £5.5m farm package in the Dáil with the bulk of the money to come from taxation. The measures included an immediate price increase of 2d a gallon on both creamery and liquid milk. A quality premium on creamery milk would also be increased by 1d from the following April. And an expert group would be set up to report to the minister on a two-tier price for creamery milk.
More than 1,000 ICMSA delegates met in Limerick two days later and accepted the offer; while the NFA, headed by Rickard Deasy, president, noted that the government had conceded a number of the demands it had made during its own farm incomes review.
However, a contributory factor to the government’s U-turn may have been the fact that Éamon de Valera was seeking a second seven-year term as President in an election scheduled for June 1.
His campaign manager Charles Haughey clearly did not wish to have farmers protesting on the streets. It turned out to be a well-founded concern.
President de Valera was re-elected but his margin was only 10,578 votes out of a poll of 1.1m. His sole opponent, Fine Gael’s Tom O’Higgins, came within 1% of causing a major upset.
The cases of the 452 farmers were heard at Dublin District Court as the presidential election votes were being counted.
Four farmers had the charges against them withdrawn for “technical reasons”. All the others were fined £5 each, or, in default, were ordered to serve one month’s imprisonment. The ICMSA kept to its pledge not to pay any fines.
These were later mitigated to £1 by justice minister Brian Lenihan, having considered a petition submitted to him by the Leinster Milk Producers Association (LMPA). But there was still no change in the ICMSA stance.
On the night of September 22, four months after the court cases were heard, the Department of Justice announced that the mitigated fines totalling £448 had been paid and that the minister now regarded the matter as closed. The ICMSA insisted it had not given anybody authority to pay the fines.
The LMPA said it accepted responsibility for doing so on the basis that its members had benefited from the milk price increases brought about as a result of the ICMSA agitation and it also wished to save fellow farmers from serving a jail sentence.
Parallels between dairy price issues today and in 1966
The campaign for higher milk prices in 1966 remains a high point in the history of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association.
Its head office in Limerick is named after the man who led it, John Feely, who died in 1968. Each of the farmers who took part in the picketing are named in its roll of honour.
Much has changed in the past 50 years, but current ICMSA president John Comer says it would be a mistake to assume that dairy farmers today have nothing to learn from the generation that picketed Dáil Éireann in 1966.
“On the surface, we live in a different world to that generation. The way we interact with officialdom and campaign on social and political issues has been revolutionised by the enormous changes in media and information technology.
“The way we draw attention to perceived injustices has been fundamentally altered, but if you look beyond that to the issues themselves, I wonder whether there’s as much difference between the situation in 1966 and 2016 as we might think. How we campaign has changed greatly; why we campaign has changed very little, if at all. For example, the cause of the 1966 action was a state-regulated milk price that was effectively breaking the dairy farmers.
“Fast-forward to 2016 and note that we’ve just passed the first anniversary of farmer milk price falling below the cost of production. In other words, farmers have been receiving a price for over a year now that’s actually less than what it costs to produce the milk. Before anyone says ‘that’s the farmers complaining again’, I’d just point out that in 1966 there were more than 100,000 farmer milk-suppliers. Today there are about 18,000. That tells the story for those who want the truth,” he said.
Mr Comer said dairy farmers were last in line when the ICMSA picketed the Dáil 50 years ago. And they are still last in line.
“Our milk price has fallen by nearly 50% in two years and our margins have simply been ‘eaten up’ by the other links in the supply chain. We’re still being abused in terms of margin,” he said.
Michael Judge’s account in the ICMSA history, ‘Leaders of Courage’, details how the campaign, which cost £1,000 a day, was organised like a military operation from the Clarence Hotel in Dublin.
Ann O’Mahony of Kilmallock, a secretary with the association since it was founded in 1950, handled the logistics of organising farmers who arrived by train, bus, and car from all over the country.
By 9am each morning that day’s pickets were addressed by leaders John Feely and Paddy O’Brien, or by vice presidents Frank Wall of Tarbert and Tim O’Brien of Mallow. It was Wall and O’Brien’s job to view the pickets from an outpost in Buswell’s Hotel across the road from Leinster House. They were in a position to summon fresh relays of men from the Clarence Hotel as the gardaí moved to make arrests.
Another key figure was Tim O’Callaghan of Bweeng, chairman of the North Cork executive, who marshalled pickets outside the Dáil. A total of 120 arrests were made in one day alone, resulting in huge publicity.
But does the ICMSA today still have the ability to mobilise and get members out on the streets as it did 50 years ago?.
Mr Comer said: “I’d be confident that we do — probably not in those kinds of numbers, but if it was a last resort, yes, ICMSA still has the will and the means.
“We always prided ourselves on being the organisation that comes forward with solutions; we don’t believe that protest for protest’s sake is any kind of rational response or meaningful policy, and too often we see protests in Ireland that more resemble tantrums than anything meaningful. It’s much easier to reject or complain about policy X than it is to refine it and improve it and try and move the debate forward. We see that as our role — and it’s the approach our members need — but we’d never deny our 1966 action.
“It is a part of our heritage and history, and a very proud part at that,” he added