I want to make a few brief observations. I do not want to go into the heat of controversy as to whether it was right that there should be fuel dumps in the Park in 1947 or 1948. I want to look at this from above the heat of controversy which is inseparable from day to day Party politics. Looking at the whole situation in retrospective, I think it is clear enough to any intelligent mind that if you accumulate a large quantity of any kind of commodity in a time of scarcity and store it under conditions which do not tend to preserve its quality and then have to sell it in circumstances in which its original value is not present, you inevitably suffer losses and you have to sell the commodity at a price often substantially below that which you paid for it.
Complaint is made that the Park dumps of fuel were sold at less than the price which they cost. That was inevitable in the circumstances. What Deputies have to remember is that Irish turf is not like French wine, that Irish turf does not improve with age. To imagine that you could clamp it in the open in the Phoenix Park, leave it there under snow and frost for a few years, allow it to become sodden and to moulder and then sell it for the price which you paid for it, is just sheer nonsense and bears no relationship to the realities either of turf production or of commercial transactions in the years 1948 and 1951. A lot of the Park turf was simply rubbish, mouldering rubbish. Anyone who inspected it—as I took the precaution to do on a number of occasions—would realise that you could not possibly ask the consuming public to buy that turf at its original price, and no sane member of the community would have dreamt of paying for it anything more than we charged. In fact, some people were highly sceptical as to whether it was worth the reduced price at which we offered it in order to prevent it resolving entirely into a heap of turf mould.
The same applied to a considerable extent in respect of the coal. The coal which was imported and dumped in the Phoenix Park had been transported over a long distance. All the evidence shows that even when loaded for this country the coal contained a substantial slack element; and transporting coal a long distance inevitably adds to the slack content, with the result that when it was dumped in the Park it had a substantial slack element within it and by years of storage that slack content increased. The only way in which you could have sold it without loss was to fix a price for it equivalent to the price at which it was purchased and insist on the coal merchants selling it at a high price to the consumer.
It would obviously be a fraud on the consumers to ask them to pay for the Park coal, with such a high slack content, the high price which was originally paid for it on importation. In fact, in our time, it was not easy to induce the coal merchants to purchase the Park coal. Every one of them complained that it was not a suitable household coal. They complained, too, that it had a high element of slack and that they frequently had to riddle the coal in order to abstract from it a substantial amount of its slack content. To imagine, therefore, that coal could have been sold in 1948 or 1949—when imports of better quality coal were available — at the price originally charged, is to expect the impossible.
Therefore, having regard to the deteriorated condition of the turf, to the deteriorated condition even of the timber, to the fact that the coal was not of the best quality and had a high slack content, it was inevitable that losses should have been incurred in selling fuel of that kind. If we are now going to store American coal in the Park and if British coal subsequently becomes available, we are bound to lose in selling the American coal—unless we are going to say to the public: "You must continue to pay a high price for the American coal, even though other sources of coal are available to us and a quantity of coal can be sold at a lesser price."
Quite frankly, looking at the thing as objectively as I can. I say that this or any other State which resorts to the device of buying a scarce commodity of a somewhat perishable or deteriorating character and dumps it against a possible greater danger will always have to face the possibility that, if the supply position improves, the stored commodity will have to be sold at a lesser price. That has been the experience with regard to the fuel in the Park and that was the experience for the past few years. It is the experience of this Government to-day, which is selling Park coal at less than Park coal cost and that, I suggest, will be the experience of the Government when it comes to sell from dumps American coal bought and imported at a higher price than that at which British is available. I do not think we can help that. It is just one of the risks we have to take in an emergency, one of the things we cannot avoid. While one tries to aim at a certain element of balance, my own view is that I would prefer to overshoot the target rather than under-shoot it, because, though you will be forgiven for having too much, you will probably never be forgiven for having too little.
I should like to raise the whole question of the storage of American coal and the British responsibility in respect of fuel supplies. Under the trade agreement negotiated with Britain by our predecessors and under the trade agreement which we negotiated in 1948 with the British Government, Britain undertook to supply 1,500,000 tons of coal. On the other hand, we for our part agreed to supply Britain with certain commodities which were scheduled in the trade agreement.
So far as we were concerned, we kept that agreement and we felt that so long as that agreement existed—and it was authenticated by no less a signature than that of the British Prime Minister —we had every reason to believe that Britain would honour her bond and continue to supply this country with 1,500,000 tons of coal; but for reasons best known to herself—certainly reasons which were never explained to me sufficiently to justify her attitude— the British Government defaulted in the matter of supplying coal to this country. I do not believe the default was necessary because at the time Britain was declining to fulfil a solemn trade agreement with this country, she was supplying coal to overseas countries with which she had no form of trade agreement whatever. Britain was supplying customers overseas to whom she had a right to refuse coal supplies while defaulting on her coal treaty with this country.
We discussed this matter early this year with the British Government and at these discussions, as I think the Minister will admit, we urged that Britain was morally, and, in so far as there was any international law recognised in these matters, legally bound to supply this country with 1,500,000 tons of coal. The British Government representatives never disputed that there was a moral responsibility on them to provide coal for this country, and we then urged that, as the quantity of coal provided for in our agreement was not large, having regard to Britain's total output, and the fact that she was supplying overseas countries, Britain should continue to honour her obligations under the trade agreement. The British Government, however, asserted that they had not sufficient coal for themselves and this was being asserted by Britain when she was supplying overseas countries with coal, although she had no obligation to these countries.
We then urged, and, I think, with every justification, that, as Britain was importing American coal and as our trade agreement with her obliged her to supply us with coal, she ought to avail of her access to other markets to buy coal there so as to enable her to supply our requirements either from her own deposits of coal or from coal secured in these other markets. Britain at the time had, and still has, of course, a most substantial mercantile marine. Her ability to find ships to transport coal could not be questioned and her standing in the world commercial market was such that she could quite easily have imported coal, either for her own requirements or to satisfy our needs under the trade agreement into which she had entered.
At the conclusion of our discussions with the British Government, they agreed that they would find additional coal for us in the third quarter of 1951 and that the whole position would be reviewed before the end of the third quarter, with a view to seeing how Britain then stood in the matter of the availability of coal supplies and what steps she would take to fulfil her obligation under the trade agreement of 1948. At that time, we urged that, even if Britain found it necessary to import American coal for her own requirements, she ought to do that in order to supply us with the coal which she had contracted to supply, and at the stage at which we left the discussions with the British Government, the whole question was open as to whether we would get American coal from Britain at British prices or whether Britain would supply us with coal as she was bound to do under the trade agreement of 1948.
I am not familiar with what happened since then. I take it that our representatives who went subsequently to negotiate with the British Government are aware of the memorandum which was prepared following the previous talks with the British Government and I hope that that question of Britain's liability to provide us with British coal or alternative coal at the British price was again raised with the British Government. It is true, of course, that the trade agreement of 1948 and the trade agreement of 1947, the latter having been negotiated by the then Government, did not provide for the price at which coal was to be sold to this country, but I think that, reading the trade agreement, it was clear that the coal was to be supplied at approximately the British price, and, while one could understand Britain being unable to fulfil her obligations under the treaty, if Britain had no coal, we felt that it was a bit thick that Britain should default on her coal obligations to this country, pleading that she had not sufficient coal for herself, while at the same time supplying coal to other countries in respect of which she had no trade or treaty obligations whatever.
I still think it is reasonable, even at this stage, to expect the British Government to fulfil their coal obligation under the trade agreement, that that obligation should be fulfilled by the British either making their own coal available to this country up to the limits provided for in the agreement, or by finding for this country, at the British price, the coal which our people were entitled to under the agreement. We pointed out to Britain that we had previously an obligation to supply Britain with a certain quantity of potatoes and when it became clear that these potatoes could not be supplied from native sources, we then undertook to the British Government that we would buy these potatoes outside this country at a higher price. We offered to sell them to Britain at the higher price because we felt, having contracted to supply Britain with potatoes, there was a moral obligation either to get the potatoes at home or elsewhere in order to fulfil our obligation under the trade agreement with them. I am quite sure that the importance of these facts is appreciated by the Government. I hope the point of view which was put up earlier this year that Britain has an obligation to continue to supply us with coal so long as the treaty runs will be put forward and that that obligation cannot be waived by Great Britain morally on the plea that she has not sufficient coal, when, at the same time, she is supplying coal to countries with which she has no treaty obligations. I should like to hear from the Minister, when he is replying, his view as to Britain's responsibility in that matter. I hope, at all events, that Britain will not be allowed to imagine that we consented in any circumstances to her defaulting on her coal agreement though supplying coal elsewhere. All this happened at a time when we were fulfilling in the spirit and the letter our obligations under the trade agreement with Britain.
There is one other matter to which I would like to refer and that is the question of the development of our native peat resources. I am an unrepentant believer in the value and the potential use of Irish peat. I am satisfied that properly organised, through an institution like Bord na Móna, we can win substantial quantities of peat from our bogs, making its cultivation and use an economic proposition and providing expanding opportunities for employment for our people in areas where there is no other employment available.
In many of the large and valuable turf areas of this country there is no land capable of being used efficiently for agricultural purposes. In these areas, where turf abounds, there is no other potential employment except in the exploitation of our turf deposits. It is for that reason that I think it behoves the State to insist on the development of these peat deposits either by burning the peat on the bog, converting it into electricity or by encouraging, through Bord na Móna, machine-won methods of turf production and encouraging the local people to cut turf even by hand methods in order that they can provide fuel for themselves and, at the same time, make a living by marketing that fuel in the neighbouring towns and villages.
I think the Bord na Móna programme is a creditable one and I think their time-table in the matter of production is running according to schedule. Bord na Móna ought to be given the maximum encouragement to push ahead with all enthusiasm and vigour its machine production programme. Not only is that the best way of winning turf for commercial purposes, since it enables you to sell it at an economic price, but the extension of the board's activities will provide a substantial measure of expanding employment in areas where there is no employment available. I am glad, therefore, that the board is pushing ahead vigorously with its programme. I hope that, so far as this House and the Government are concerned, the board will get every possible encouragement to continue along that road.
So far as cutting turf by hand is concerned that is a craft known to our people for very many generations. It is not the best way of cutting turf in order to sell it at a low price, but it is the best and only method so far open to the small man who has to depend on his slane and his knowledge of turf cutting as a means of earning a livelihood for himself and providing fuel for his household. I think, therefore, that Bord na Móna should be asked to encourage those who cut turf by hand to do so under the best possible conditions. The board should be asked to facilitate the private turf cutter by endeavouring to make bogs available to him under conditions which will give him a fair chance of cutting this turf without having to encounter the heartbreaking difficulty of working in an undrained or improperly drained bog. The more we encourage, in the turf areas, the man who cuts turf by hand to continue to do so, the more turf we will get into the national pool and the more we will help that man to depend on his own efforts to provide for his family.
I think it is even preferable that the hand-won turf should run side by side with the machine-won turf rather than that the hand turf cutter should be swept into the Bord na Móna machine. I think the continuance of the craft of cutting turf by a slane has still something to commend it. I think it will preserve for future generations a source of fuel production, perhaps, long after Bord na Móna has moved from the local area of operation.
One thing I plead for at all events is that, in those areas where bogs exist and where the sole means of livelihood for the local people is the production of turf, the State, in every possible way, ought to encourage the production of turf, firstly, because it is an Irish fuel, secondly, because properly cut and saved, it is a good fuel and, thirdly, because it helps to render our people more independent of foreign fuel imports.