I desire to move the following motion:—
That the Dáil disapproves of the decision of the Executive Council accepting the recommendation of the Tariff Commission that a Customs tariff should not be imposed on fish barrels.
On the 7th March, 1927, an application by the Irish Free State Fish Barrel Makers' Association for the imposition of a customs duty of 33? per cent. on all imported barrels intended for use in the packing of cured fish was referred to the Tariff Commission. In November, 1929, the Tariff Commission reported on that application, and included in its report a recommendation that the application be not granted, which recommendation was accepted by the Government, I then submitted this motion, which has been on the Order Paper since. I put the motion down, not because I claimed to have any special knowledge of the industries affected by the application, but because I thought, in the first place, that it was desirable that the Dáil should be afforded an opportunity of considering the case that was made in support of the application and the reasons advanced by the Tariff Commission for its rejection.
As Deputies are aware, the Tariff Commission Act has been operated in a manner which deprives the Dáil of having any effective say in the imposition of protective duties in such a case as this in which the Tariff Commission recommend that the application be not granted. In such cases, in fact, the merits of the application cannot come under review by the Dáil at all unless some private member brings forward a motion such as that which I am now moving. Apart from that consideration, when reading the report of the Commission, I was struck by the fact that they appeared to have given much greater consideration to the evidence submitted to them by the barrel-making firms in the Six Counties, by the Belfast Fish Curers' Association, by Deputy Major Myles, and by the associations catering for the Scottish steam drifters and Scottish curers than they did to the evidence submitted by citizens of this State. The Commission reveal in their report the same mentality as they revealed in other reports. The difficulties of the Scottish steam-drifters and fish-curers appeared to have carried much more weight with the Commission than did the difficulties of the Free State curers or the Free State fish barrel manufacturers.
Somehow or other, the members of the Commission never appeared to be able to contemplate the possibilities of Irishmen fulfilling any other function than that of tinkers and handymen pandering to the comforts of foreign tourists or acting as hewers of wood and drawers of water to such foreign industrialists as think fit to avail of such resources as are to be had here. In any case, the arguments against the application of the fish-barrel manufacturers, as set out in the report, do not appear to be well-founded, and although, as I have said, I do not claim to have any special qualification, I think it is nevertheless possible for me, or any other layman in my position, to demonstrate that the case for the application was much stronger than the case against it, and very much stronger than would appear from the report of the Commission.
Perhaps it would be well if I begin by giving a synopsis of the case against the application, as set out by the Commission. The circumstances of the fish-barrel manufacturing industry are, of course, inextricably mixed up with those of the fishing industry and can, therefore, be considered under two heads—first, in relation to the herring fishing industry, and, secondly, in relation to the mackerel fishing industry. In the case of the herring fishing industry it is stated in the report that herring fishing from Donegal and other Free State ports is carried on mainly by non-Saorstát vessels. Most of these vessels are Scottish. I take it that the term "non-Saorstát" is used by the Tariff Commission rather than the term "foreign" in consequence of the political implications of the latter term. However, the fact is that the herring fishing industry is very largely in the hands of Scottish people, and it was the difficulty that would arise if the application were granted in consequence of that fact, that appeared to have weighed most with the Commission. The greater proportion of the catch is not sold fresh in this country, but is pickled and exported mainly to the Continent through the port or Hamburg. Hence the market to which drifters and other vessels engaged in herring fishing look for the sale of their catches is provided by the curers, and many of the Scottish curing firms establish themselves at Free State ports during the fishing season, and it is contended by the Commission that the presence of these Scottish curers at the fishing port is essential to the prosperity of the fishermen.
The curers require for their business an adequate supply of barrels at a reasonable price. It is the practice of some of the principal Scottish curers to work a cooperage as an adjunct to their main business and make use of their own barrels as far as possible in their curing trade. The Tariff Commission argued that the effect of a tariff would be to deprive the Free State herring fishing industry of the services of the Scottish curers, and that in the absence of these curers the Scottish drifters would cease to land their catches at Free State ports. They, therefore, recommended that the tariff be not imposed. I think that that is a fair summary of the case they made in respect of the herring fishing industry and the effect which the granting of the application would have upon that industry.
In the case of the mackerel fishing industry, the vessels and curers from foreign countries do not participate. Again, however, the greater portion of the catch is cured for export. The market is in the United States of America and is already protected by a tariff. The position, therefore, of Free State exporters in that market is already precarious, and any increase in their working costs would make it impossible for them to continue their trade, or, at any rate, so the Commission contend. They argue that the free importation of Norwegian barrels tends to keep down the price of barrels produced in the Free State and thus makes it easier for exporters of cured mackerel to maintain their position in the protected market in America. That is the second half of the case.
If we take the two parts of this application separately it will probably be found more convenient. It will be seen that the main contention of the Commission against the application is that its granting would result in the disappearance of the Scottish curing firms from Free State ports and that their disappearance would mean that the Scottish fishing fleet would not use them. It is difficult to believe that in the evidence to that effect which was given before the Commission there was not a very great percentage of bluff. It would appear, and it has been stated to me by persons prominently identified with the curing business, that the Scottish curers and the Scottish Drifters' Association gave evidence before the Commission very largely at the instance of the Six Counties barrel manufacturers, and made statements to the effect I have indicated, without intending that, in the event of the tariff being imposed, they would, in fact, get out of the Free State fishing business altogether. I think that it can be shown that there would still be sufficient inducement for them to keep in the business and that, even if they did go out, their place would ultimately be taken by others who would be desirous of securing the profits which they were relinquishing.
Speaking as one who has no direct knowledge of the industry, I may say that I could not find in the report of the Commission any good reason why we should seriously endeavour to keep the Scottish curers at our ports, or to keep the Scottish fishing fleet using them. It does not seem to me that we gain any substantial advantage from that. Even the employment given to the Irish people is very limited. It is the practice of these Scottish firms to bring their own workmen with them and, apart from whatever benefits may accrue to the towns in which they are employed in maintaining them throughout their visit, no substantial advantage is gained. It certainly does not appear to me that the advantage is of such a nature that we should take action which is likely to have the effect of definitely putting a number of Irish cooperage firms out of business and of greatly increasing the difficulties with which Irish curers have to contend.
It is stated in the report that there is a market on the Continent for herring caught off the Donegal coast, as distinct from the general market for cured or pickled herring. The Donegal herring is of special size and quality, and commands in the Continental markets a price which, in some cases, ranges as high as 50 per cent. in excess of the price secured by herring caught elsewhere. It is the good quality of the Donegal herring which has brought the Scottish curers and fishing fleet to the Donegal ports. The opponents of the application stated that if it were granted it would be possible for the Scottish fishing fleet to continue fishing in Free State waters from Scottish ports, but those with whom I discussed that matter contend that if they did so they would have to engage in six hours extra steaming on each journey and would lose one night's fishing a week, that the loss involved would be much greater than any loss they might sustain in consequence of increased prices for barrels following the imposition of a tariff.
It is not clear either that the imposition of a tariff would, in fact, make it so difficult for the Scottish curers to continue their business that they would leave our ports altogether. The main contention of the Tariff Commission is that it is essential in the curing business to have at the disposal of curers a number of skilled workers for the purpose of opening and closing the barrels. The barrels have to be closed and opened a number of times during the process of pickling. One of the reasons advanced by the applicants was that the existence of cooperages in the Free State meant that the services of skilled coopers could be put at the disposal of Irish curers and they argued that if, as a result of the refusal of the application, these curers went out of business Irish curers would have difficulty in getting skilled coopers to carry on their business. In fact, the only reason why the Scottish curing firms make their own barrels is to enable them to keep in employment during the non-fishing season the coopers whom they require during the fishing season, apart from the fact that it is apparently generally agreed in the trade that hand-made barrels are much superior to the machine-made barrels which are imported.
I have evidence that if these Scotch curers could rely on securing a supply of barrels within the Free State at prices corresponding to those at which they can now make them for themselves they would not, in fact, import barrels at all but would avail of the Free State supply. A point to note in this connection, however, is that the actual number of barrels imported by curers for their own use in the manner stated in the report of the Tariff Commission is only a very small percentage of our total imports. In the year 1927, according to the figures set out in the report, some 185,000 barrels were used in the fish curing industry here. Of these, 38,000 were the products of Free State cooperages; 61,184 were imported from Northern Ireland; 16,277 from Norway, and only 69,549 from Great Britain. Of that number of 69,549, a large number were imported for sale in the ordinary way, and not by the curers for use in their own business.
The Tariff Commission concentrated all their attention upon the position of these Scotch curers who, by the imposition of this tariff, might be debarred from importing their own barrels, made in their own works, for their own use when engaged in the curing business here. Deputies should know that, in addition to these importations, a large number of barrels come in for sale to Irish curers and Scotch curers here. They are being sold in competition with the native products. The Tariff Commission do not deny that the Free State cooperages are quite capable of producing all the barrels required in the curing industry here. It is right to say that they produce barrels of a particularly good quality. The evidence submitted to the Commission by the fish curers was all in favour of the hand-made barrels as being more reliable than the machine-made barrels. Of course, the Tariff Commission are always on the look out for machines. When any application comes before them they always, apparently, go to see the largest machine for use in that industry. If they cannot find that machine installed in some Irish works they arrive at the conclusion that Irish works are not efficient. They discovered in some Scotch works what is called a trussing machine. They admit that in a number of works they visited they found this machine. idle, and that the barrels produced by it are, in many cases, defective and, certainly, inferior to the barrels produced by hand. They, however, come to the conclusion that because this machine does not exist in any of the Irish cooperages the latter cannot be classed as efficient.
I discussed this matter with the manager of the largest cooperage in the Free State, and I learned from him that the fact is that this trussing machine is of very doubtful utility. In the case of the firm to which I refer the non-installation of the machine was not due to any deficiency in the way of capital, or for any reason except that the manager of the firm did not think much of the machine. He was satisfied that if he installed it, and sold barrels made by it, the reputation he had built up for his products would be destroyed by the inferior barrels produced in that way.
It is a fact, however, that Free State barrels are normally sold at prices slightly in excess of the price at which Scotch and Northern Ireland barrels can be imported. There are certain reasons for that which are set out in the report of the Tariff Commission, one being that the Irish cooperages have to pay a slightly higher price for the imported raw material, the other and main reason being that owing to intense competition these cooperages are only working at a small percentage of their capacity. It is reasonable to assume that if the whole market were reserved to them and they were thereby enabled to increase their production, they would also be able to effect a reduction in prices. In fact, the two principal cooperages concerned in the application gave a written undertaking to the effect that the prices mentioned in the undertaking would not be exceeded while the cost of the raw material and wages remained the same. The cooperages reserved the right, however, to increase prices following any rise in the cost of raw materials or wages. In commenting upon that undertaking the Tariff Commission remark that the cooperages did not undertake to reduce prices should the cost of raw materials or wages fall. They did not give that undertaking because they were not asked for it. They have assured me that they are quite willing to give that undertaking. They will be quite satisfied, if they can secure the prices now prevailing, subject only to such alterations as may be necessitated by a rise or fall in the cost of raw materials and in the prevailing wage rates. The intention of the Tariff Commission, of course, is that this increased price which curers would have to pay for their barrels, if the tariff were imposed, would definitely handicap them in their business and result in a reduction in the volume of fish cured and exported.
I have mentioned that there is a demand on the Continent for Donegal herrings as such, a demand which is not associated with the demand for ordinary, cured herrings. The price paid for Donegal herrings exceeds the price paid for other herrings. I should mention that herrings are sold in Hamburg and in other markets by auction. The fish when received is put up for auction and sold to the highest bidder. Within very short periods the price secured for Donegal herrings has fluctuated by more than 10/- a barrel. The exporter of the herrings cannot be certain what price he is going to get until they are auctioned. He does not know whether he will get 50/- or 60/- per barrel until the sale is completed.
It has, however, been contended by the Tariff Commission that an exporter who is engaged in that very risky form of business will go out of business altogether if his costs of production are increased by sixpence a barrel in consequence of the imposition of a tariff. That argument appears to me to be perfectly nonsensical. I am quite satisfied that so long as there is a demand on the Continent for Donegal herrings it will be profitable to supply that demand even if the price on the barrels has to be increased by sixpence following the protection given to the barrel-making industry here. It should also be noted that the price of barrels fluctuates. The price of the barrel is determined very largely by the demand for them, and the demand is determined by the actual size of the catch. No one can foretell what the catch in any season is going to be. In some seasons the catches are very large and in others very small. The price of barrels rises or falls in accordance with the size of the catch.
It should be noted that the existing cooperage business in the Free State was a direct result of the abnormal circumstances which arose in the year 1924, when there was a very heavy herring harvest. Barrels were particularly scarce and, in fact, it became impossible for Irish curers to obtain them at any price. They paid prices which were, in many cases, more than double those now prevailing, in order to get the barrels essential for the continuance of their business. When that situation arose a number of Irish curers came together and took steps to have the cooperage business established in the Free State which would ensure that if the circumstances were repeated in future they could be certain of having a supply of barrels in this country.
The Department of Fisheries was also instrumental in having steps taken to that end, and are still engaged in trying to get Free State cooperages to take on apprentices, their concern being to have a number of skilled coopers always available here so that curers could carry on their business. While the Department of Fisheries are anxious to take steps to that end, to ensure a supply of coopers here always, the whole policy of the Government is tending in the opposite direction. The position is now that Irish cooperages are only supplying about 20 per cent. of the barrels used in the country, and that percentage is likely to decrease unless this measure of protection is afforded them. That is the position in relation to the herring industry.
I think it is unlikely that the imposition of the tariff would result in the Scotch curers vacating our ports. There still remains an inducement for them to continue in the business, even if the price of their barrels should be increased by 6d. Remember that some of these curers use their own barrels and therefore have them at the minimum cost of production. Others import barrels or buy barrels from Free State cooperages. If the Scotch curers do not go the Scotch steam drifters will not go. I do not believe the steam drifters would go even if the Scotch curers went. I think the disappearance of the Scotch curers would mean their replacement in time by Irish curing firms, a number of which exist at the moment and are struggling to retain their hold on the industry. On the other hand the granting of the application would mean the preservation and development of the cooperage business here. It would mean that Irish curers could be sure of having at their disposal the services of the skilled coopers which they require. It would mean that there would be always available a supply of barrels within the country to enable business to be carried on, and we would not be dependent on the surplus available in Scotland or England in a year in which there might be a heavy harvest.
In relation to the mackerel industry the circumstances are somewhat different. The contention of the Tariff Commission in that case is that it is necessary for the Irish mackerel curers to get barrels at the lowest possible price, because their market in the United States of America is a precarious one and that any increase in the price of the barrels would have to be offset by a decrease in the price paid for their fish, or else would put them out of business altogether. The applicants argued and produced evidence to show that barrels imported from Norway—and it is mainly Norwegian barrels Irish coopers are in competition with in the mackerel curing industry—were of very poor quality. They were leaking, and badly constructed. A number of those who used them had reason to regret doing so and had ceased to use them. It is clear that these Norwegian barrels sell more cheaply than it is possible for Irish coopers to sell barrels, but the Irish coopers maintain that the superior quality of their product makes the difference in price worth while. At the present price a Norwegian mackerel barrel costs 5/7, whereas the price of a Free State barrel is 6/3. In any case the applicants contend that instead of the free importation of Norwegian barrels keeping down the price of Free State barrels the reverse is the case, that it was the establishment of cooperages here in the year 1924 that brought down the price of Norwegian barrels.
When the mackerel curers were in the position that they could buy from Norway alone they were charged exorbitant prices, but with the establishment of cooperages here the price of Norwegian barrels was brought down. They contend that if, as a result of the refusal of this tariff, the Free State cooperages disappear the price of Norwegian barrels will go up. That is the dire result the Tariff Commission say might flow from the granting of the application. The fact that a number of persons engaged in the fish curing business in Kerry and Cork were associated with the application for a tariff would seem to indicate that they did not anticipate the results which the Tariff Commission professes to foresee. That is, I think, the whole case.
The attitude of members of the Dáil in relation to this particular application for a tariff will, of course, be determined very largely by their general views on the question of the protection of industry. The case for the imposition of a tariff on fish barrels is, of course, complicated to some extent by the fact that these barrels are the raw material of an export business. There is, however, practically no industrial product which cannot be described as being in some way the raw material of some other industry, and the question which we must ask ourselves is whether or not it is possible for us to supply this raw material to this industry without causing damage sufficient to offset the advantage which would flow from doing so. I think we can. I think the difficulties the Tariff Commission mentioned, and which were brought to their notice by the Scotch Steam Drifters' Association, and their friends in Belfast and Derry, are largely illusory; that, in fact, these difficulties will not be there at all, and that the Tariff Commission were bluffed by these outsiders, who were making a good thing out of Irish trade.
Whatever advantage we get from their presence at our ports we continue to get even if this application is granted. We think that although the employment to be given in the industry is not very large—it is a very minor industry—nevertheless it is of considerable importance. We have very few opportunities of providing a livelihood for skilled workers in this country and those engaged in this industry are particularly highly skilled. We should, I think, endeavour to preserve at all costs the opportunities for employing skilled workers that are available. In any case the existence of these skilled workers in the country is essential to the business of fish-curing, and our concern should be to foster and facilitate the Irish rather than the Scotch fish curers. The Tariff Commission decided it was more important to preserve the Scotch curers when they are willing to contemplate the disappearance of the Irish cooperage business, and consequently the difficulty of Irish curers in getting coopers required in their business. We think that the attitude of this Tariff Commission should be otherwise, and we regret sincerely that the Government should have thought of accepting the Tariff Commission's recommendation in this matter. We think the House should pass this motion, and thus indicate that it disapproves of their action in so doing.