Milk for the masses.
IRISH AGRICULTURE NATIONALISED: THE DAIRY DISPOSAL COMPANY AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN IRISH DAIRY INDUSTRY DUBLIN: INSTITUTE FOR PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION, 2014. 29.95 [euro].
THE DAIRY DISPOSAL COMPANY (DDC) was created in 1927 "initially as a kind of NAMA for the dairy industry in Munster" (viii), as Eunan O'Halpin describes it in his foreword to this book. A number of creameries in the region were threatened with closure when their British owners decided to withdraw from the Irish market. The DDC was created to run these creameries until such time as they could be transferred to co-operative societies. Between 1927 and 1978, the DDC ran 191 creameries and 86 other agribusinesses, principally in six Irish counties. At its height in the 1940s, it had 25,000 farmer suppliers and was one of Ireland's largest trading enterprises. It was finally dissolved in the 1970s, leaving behind a record of achievement about which the author of this history of the DDC is obviously enthusiastic.
What makes the DDC story interesting is that it was envisaged as a short-term solution. The transfer of the creameries to co-operative control was meant to happen shortly afterwards. It was also intended to contribute to a reorganization of the woefully fragmented creamery system. Instead, the DDC evolved and widened its responsibilities, becoming "the Irish government's version of the Congested Districts Board ... to develop economically peripheral areas in the west of Ireland" (2), and in so doing "[laying] the foundation for the reinvention of the Irish dairy industry" (2). The political circumstances which allowed this to happen and the consequences of the way this happened provide much of the interest in this meticulously-detailed account of the DDC's personalities and activities during its life.
Although a substantial number of creameries (or their milk supplies) were transferred to co-operative societies in 1928, many others could not be transferred due to the weak state of co-operative societies at the time. The DDC quickly realized that it would have to manage and not merely dispose of the remaining creameries, requiring it to put in place structures to cover its costs and make a profit. To fulfill its reorganization role, it began to acquire co-operative creameries to allow it to implement a rationalization plan in specific areas. It also began to expand the creamery system into areas in Kerry and Clare where it was not yet established. It further diversified into a range of ancillary activities from the 1940s onwards intended to improve the income situation of its suppliers, confirming its role as a development agency. Although it had transferred its first creamery group to co-operative control in 1944, by the early 1960s "it seemed likely that the DDC would continue to operate its creameries and other agri-businesses in perpetuity" (7).
What changed this outlook was the emergence of representative farmers' organizations which believed that suppliers would be better served if the DDC were dissolved. Following entry into the European Economic Community, the Department of Agriculture also accepted that its continuation was illegitimate. Over the opposition of the DDC itself, its creameries and other agri-businesses were transferred to farmer control, and the DDC was officially wound up in 1978.
This history of the DDC was completed as a doctoral thesis at Trinity College Dublin. O Fathartaigh's first chapter describes the circumstances around the origins in the DDC in 1927. The next three chapters describe three phases in the evolution of the DDC to the mid-1940s: entrenchment, expansion and completion following the passage of the Creameries (Acquisition) Bill in 1943 which enabled the compulsory purchase of the remaining proprietary creameries. His next two chapters describe the development innovations initiated by the DDC to improve livelihoods in its creamery areas, as well as the sowing of the seeds of its downfall as tensions rose with the new farming organizations over issues such as collecting membership subscriptions and the level of milk prices. O Fathartaigh believes that the DDC could and should have defended the milk price it paid more vigorously against criticism from the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) in particular. The 1960s was a particularly difficult period for dairying which led to significant public support for dairy farmer incomes. While at a political level there seems to have been a willingness to maintain and perpetuate the DDC, among the leaders of the farm organizations and later among the DDC's own suppliers the feeling grew that their interests would be better served by its dissolution. The final chapter describes the dissolution process in the 1970s. By this time the attitude of the Department of Agriculture had changed to favor dissolution and, once the process of transferring DDC creameries to co-operative control had started, it was impossible to stop. However, it took the direct intervention of the then Minister for Agriculture Mark Clinton who by-passed the DDC and negotiated directly with the relevant cooperative societies to complete the process.
O Fathartaigh uses the DDC story to illuminate and re-interpret the wider story of government economic policy towards agriculture and the role of state-sponsored bodies in economic development. He argues that the nationalization (through voluntary purchase) by the Cumann na nGaedheal government of a considerable portion of the dairy industry shows that it was more pragmatic in its attitude to state intervention than is often allowed. He notes that Fianna Fail's support for the DDC when it came to power in the 1930s shows that it was less anti-livestock than is sometimes assumed. He observes that the transfer of the DDC creameries in the 1970s was actually the first example of a major privatization and resulted from popular pressure rather than the more Thatcherite motivations for later privatization.
Despite the author's best efforts, the level of detail provided at times makes for dense reading, only occasionally enlivened with flashes of humor as when, in a rare criticism of the DDC in noting its lack of initiative to arrest the decline of the Cleeves toffee factory in Limerick, he describes the Labour TD for Limerick East Stephen Coughlan as "[railing] at the fudge with the toffee factory" (144). For this reader, the author's description of the interaction between farming politics and the changing attitudes towards the DDC in the 1960s made for the most compelling reading. A weakness in 6 Fathartaigh's argument at this point is his insistence that the DDC paid a good price to its suppliers compared to the co-operatives and could have more vigorously defended this. No formal evidence for this assertion is provided and, in the one instance where figures are given (for the Knocklong group) local suppliers' complaints appear to be justified.
Overall, however, the author makes a convincing case that the ddc throughout its history was a successful example of state enterprise in promoting the development of peripheral rural areas in Ireland. He argues that, although the DDC towards the end had come to believe it had a permanent role in the Irish dairy industry and fought its dissolution, it did achieve its principal objective of re-organizing the dairy sector under co-operative control. This is a minutely-researched work which sheds new light on a relatively under-appreciated player in Ireland's agricultural development. In so doing, it provides new insights into the agricultural policies of successive governments as well as the role of state enterprise in Ireland. *
--Trinity College Dublin