In dealing with this matter of the fuel situation and the acute position which developed for a certain period, I am afraid I will have to go back somewhat into the past in order to show what the activities of my own Department were in the matter of seeing that coal and fuel generally were coming into the country in sufficient supplies to warrant the emergency regulations which were referred to in the Dáil not being moved.
During the week immediately preceding the coal strike and the general strike in Great Britain a general stocktaking was undertaken by my Department in regard to supplies of wheat, flour, coal, petrol and paraffin in the area of the Irish Free State. The figures when they were gathered were very reassuring as it developed that there were many months' stocks of wheat and flour and many months' stocks of petrol and paraffin, and even if the general strike had extended to this country there would have been abundant supplies of these essentials for a much longer period than a general strike could in all probability have lasted. As the general strike did not extend to this country, sources of supply were, of course, always open. In addition to this the special matter of yeast was investigated, as none of it is now manufactured in the Saorstát. Arrangements were made to ensure the maintenance of supplies to all districts.
On the special matter of coal the position varied largely according to the district, but in all districts the position was such as to give no immediate cause for anxiety. Public utility services carried large stocks. I am speaking now of the period about the 30th April. The flour millers, bakers and industrialists generally were very well supplied. The more important, but, at a time of crisis, nonessential industries carried fairly heavy stocks. It is to the credit of private firms that at that time no hesitancy was shown in supplying exact information. In addition to the stocks held by consumers the coal merchants in the larger centres were well supplied. The Dublin Coal Merchants' Association in particular carried stocks which, it was stated, would suffice for six weeks under normal conditions.
Early in May—about 3rd May— there was a general meeting of the Dublin Coal Merchants' Association at which a resolution was passed—it was afterwards communicated to me— appointing a Committee "to consider the situation that has arisen owing to the strike of miners in Great Britain, and to take such steps as may be necessary: (a) to ascertain the stocks of coal held by merchants and industries; (b) to protect the public interest and (c) to give all information possible to the Government." At this time the main complaints received came from importers of coal to the effect that cargoes loading at ports in Great Britain were being held up. About a fortnight later The Protection of the Community (Special Powers) Act, 1926, was passed and draft regulations under that Act for the control of coal supplies were prepared immediately in my Department.
About this time, and up to the 2nd of June, I had very many interviews with representatives of the Dublin Coal Merchants' Association. Mr. Morrison, who was the British Coal Controller in Ireland at one time, was present. As a result of these interviews the Association undertook to work in co-operation with me and to maintain supplies. In view of these undertakings it was decided that it was unnecessary at that moment to declare a state of national emergency or to issue the regulations prepared.
On 2nd June Deputy Major Bryan Cooper put a question in the Dáil as to whether it was proposed either to reduce the number of railway services in the Saorstát or to limit the consumption of coal in any other way. My reply was:—"The action referred to in the question could only be taken under regulations made in accordance with the Protection of the Community (Special Powers) Act. According to my information such action is not necessary at the moment, though the situation may change so rapidly as to render it soon advisable. Since only one of many available sources of coal supply is at present closed, I would expect coal merchants to maintain supplies without any serious difficulty and without the need of cumbersome and drastic regulations."
There was public notice given in that of my intentions as they were at that time, and of the view-point which we had on the whole situation. From that date on my Department was in the closest possible touch and in constant communication with the Coal Merchants' Association. All applications for assistance in obtaining supplies of coal received by my Department were referred to the Association. They were not in any great numbers around about this time. As I have stated, they were referred to the Association. Applications were from time to time received from districts as far apart as Cavan, Monaghan, Athlone, Killarney, Castlebar, Cobh, Enniscorthy, Bagnalstown, Athy, Trim, Limerick and Drogheda.
Without exception these applications were duly met—until the middle of October. At that time an extreme shortage of supplies in Dublin and an almost complete lack of cargoes due, was suddenly disclosed. No warning, nor indeed hint of any kind, as to this situation impending was given to my Department by the Coal Merchants' Association, although my Department was in frequent communication with the Association during the period when this situation was impending. It appears that about the middle of September, with prices rising and some expectation of an early settlement of the dispute in England, many of the merchants decided to stop further orders. When the emergency arose in October, I was told that only five firms out of the nineteen in the Association had any orders outstanding. The prime cause of the emergency was therefore the failure of the Association, which had been meeting readily all requisitions from my Department for supplies, to give any information whatever as to the drastic change in its arrangements. This is all the more surprising in view of the assurances readily given to me personally by the Association, when I met its representatives in June.
I can understand the reluctance of the Association, or, at least, the members with restricted resources, to incur large commitments in an uncertain market, but no reason has yet been given to me why the position in which they then found themselves was not frankly anticipated, so that we might consult as to the best measures to be taken. It is remarkable that the merchants in other cities and towns, with resources less than are available to the large Dublin Association, have, notwithstanding serious difficulties, been able to maintain sufficient supplies to prevent local emergencies of the extent of that which arose in Dublin. The first hint of an acute shortage impending came from some of the smaller gas undertakings, which advised the Department early in October that they were running out of supplies. The matter was taken up with the local Merchants' Association, which considered that the position could not be-so serious as represented, since recently-arrived cargoes of coal suitable for the making of gas, had been offered to but refused by gas undertakings. Some commercial undertakings had, it was evident, taken no special trouble to secure that the supplies of coal on which they depended, would be forthcoming, and, even at a later date, they had no realisation of the position, while others had made careful and full provision for their needs for a considerable period. While admitting that supplies were short for the immediate future, large private orders were stated by the Association to have been placed. Further investigation showed the necessity for special measures. Arrangements were made to issue coal from the stocks held by Government Departments to the City Commissioners, and to suitable authorities elsewhere, with a view to making provision for the poor. The City Commissioners were provided with information as to the sources of turf supply, and put into communication with the Coal Merchants' Association in order to secure a proportion of cargoes of briquettes which the Association had on order.
The Association was pressed to place further orders. I met the Association on the 26th October and explored the position fully with them. It became evident that the difficulties due to so many firms having ceased to place orders for coal had been aggravated by the putting, about the time I met the Association, of an unexpected embargo on the export of Continental coal. This meant that much of what was on order by firms who were continuing business was not being delivered when expected. Some of it has not, in fact, yet been loaded. Further, exports from America were being subjected to sudden very long delays and freights from America were rising with great rapidity. No definite forecast could be made as to deliveries for some weeks ahead, and those firms which had forward orders were not anxious to incur new commitments in a situation which in respect of prices, delivery dates and the strike position in England, were so full of uncertainties. It was on that date that the first suggestion was made by the Association that, if further orders were to be placed, the Government must assist financially.
I readily agreed to give such assistance, and after discussion it was arranged that the Association should purchase coal to a quantity which I would prescribe as the necessities of the case warranted, that the coal so purchased would be distributed through the members of the Association at a price based on the cost of the coal delivered at Dublin, plus an agreed amount to cover the Association's services and expenses, and that I would take over for Government purposes any of this coal which on arrival at Dublin the members of the Association were not prepared to handle. At the same time it was agreed that such members of the Association as had their own orders placed would maintain such supplies. As a result, orders for some 25,000 tons of coal to be delivered in November were placed on this basis, to be available in addition to some 100,000 tons on private order for delivery in November and December. Subsequently I procured a special offer of 20,000 tons of high grade Continental coal, of which some 4,000 tons have been ordered up to date.