Dáil Éireann - Volume 54 - 21 February, 1935
In Committee on Finance. - Adjournment Debate: Flax Growing.
Mr. T.J. O'Donovan Mr. T.J. O'Donovan
Mr. T.J. O'Donovan: I had two questions on the Order Paper yesterday in relation to the cultivation of flax in the Free State and in reference to the prospects of flax growers this year. I put these questions down in the expectation of getting a statement with regard to a scheme for the development of the flax industry in the Free State. I put them down after having had correspondence from a number of people in Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and West Cork, in order to ascertain what was the scheme, if any, that the Government had for the development of flax growing in Ireland. The scarcity of raw material for the linen trade has gained great publicity.  The price of flax has risen from something like 8/- to 12/6 or 13/- per stone. Numbers of people in the flax-growing counties of Donegal, Monaghan, Cavan, Mayo and West Cork have the skill and the knowledge, and generations of experience behind them in the development of the flax industry. They have the scutch mills and the steeping dams. They have not been able to take advantage of other schemes, such as beet, wheat and peat, and they are now anxiously waiting for some definite move in this matter. In these flax-growing areas beet, for instance, is no good to these people. They are cut off from the beet factories by very long distances. Beet or wheat is no good to the Cavan people, to the Monaghan people, or to the Donegal people; but they are hoping now when the price of flax has advanced, for some scheme to help them over this difficult period. They are paying subsidies for beet and wheat to the people who grow them, and they are hoping for some advantage out of a flax scheme which would help them out of the corner they are in at present.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Local Government and Public Health (Dr. Ward), some time ago, made reference to this flax scheme and I know many Fianna Fáil Deputies are interested in it. After the pronouncement of the Parliamentary Secretary I expected that we should hear something authoritative that would let the people know where they stood in this matter. The time is ripe now, I think, for such a pronouncement. If the farmer is to grow flax, now is the time to get the plough to work and the ground prepared. Flax must be sown in April, and if the farmers do not proceed to prepare the ground now, they will be too late and they will lose the benefit they otherwise might secure this year.
There is another matter that I expect the Minister will be able to tell us something about. It was stated in the Press of the 19th February that the farmers were about to ask the Minister for Agriculture for a flax guarantee. I have not heard that they asked for a flax guarantee. They might expect  some subsidy, or a minimum price, but the fact that I have mentioned got publicity in the Daily Mail which also stated that a deputation from the Federation of Irish Industries was to meet the Minister for Agriculture in order to induce him to take action to encourage the Southern farmers to grow flax for the linen mills in Northern Ireland. If the Minister is going to receive this deputation, and if he is going to discuss his flax scheme with the Federation of Irish Industries I think he might have made that scheme known when I put down these questions on the Order Paper yesterday, and, in that way let the people of the flax growing areas know what the scheme is to be. I asked yesterday whether there is a flax scheme outlined at present and whether the Minister is going to make a statement, and he replied “not at present.” But if the Minister does not act immediately there will be no advantage derived from the growing of flax this year. If there is to be any advantage now is the time to make the pronouncement about the scheme and not a month hence.
I am not going to dwell upon my second question yesterday, but again I would say if there is to be a scheme it would be necessary to try and secure now, as far as possible, whatever quantities of mature seeds are necessary. Furthermore, measures should be taken to ensure that a supply of flax-seed of good fibre and purity—Pernacrown and Dutch varieties—was secured in good time so that farmers going in for flax-growing again would have good seed. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity of telling us what are the possibilities now before the flax-growers in this country. There is no use in sending out one instructor to take charge of the flax-growing counties from Tory Island to Cape Clear. One man cannot do it. The thing is, in the flax-growing counties where they have the skill and experience, to have the seed sent to them in time. Now is the time to send instructors to encourage the people to prepare the ground for the flax and to let them know that if that is done the  Government will see that it is going to be a profitable crop. Not very long ago there were as many as nine or ten flax-instructors functioning in the counties I mentioned. It may be if this scheme materialises that you would need instructors in the scutching season in those counties where flax is grown to take control in the mills and see that it is properly milled. But, for the sowing and subsequent handling, I do not think, unless there is a very big area cultivated, there would be any necessity for whole-time instructors this year.
With regard to the marketing of the flax, if the scheme materialises, there is, unfortunately, no market in the Free State. We have to depend on the Belfast spinners to buy the flax. My experience of them is that they pay very good prices and dealt fairly and squarely with us in the flax business, but the only hope now is that this Federation of Irish Industries may, if they have any money behind them, start a spinning mill in the Free State. We have no spinning mill in the Free State and, consequently, we have to go foreign to get linen. The Minister for Industry and Commerce, on, I think, a debate on unemployment here, said that we would have a linen industry, and I was wondering where the raw material to produce it was to come from, because we have no spinning mill to spin the yarn to make the linen. This Federation is a go-ahead body, composed of very good business people, who are interested in this matter and in industrial development generally, and as a result of the starting of the flax industry again, they may develop and we may have spinning and weaving mills in the Free State. I hope the Minister will make a statement on the matter now. There is no necessity for me to add anything further to what I have said.
Mr. O'Neill Mr. O'Neill
Mr. O'Neill: The Minister is going to spin his yarn now.
Minister for Agriculture (Dr. Ryan) Minister for Agriculture (Dr. Ryan)
Minister for Agriculture (Dr. Ryan): With regard to the question of seed, I said yesterday that I did not think there would be any difficulty in procuring seed in the Free State. There would  be enough pedigree seed in Ireland, between the North of Ireland and the Free State, to sow about 9,000 acres. Deputy O'Donovan knows quite well that the seed for Free State importers came from North of Ireland wholesale firms, and retailers in the Free State were offered a fair share of that pedigree seed provided they paid the price. That price was rather high as compared with the price of commercial seed. I think the quotation was 60/- for the 8-stone bag as compared with 35/- for the commercial seed. In addition to the amount of pedigree seed available, there is sufficient commercial seed to sow a very big acreage and, in fact, I should say much bigger than will be sown either in the Six Counties or in the Free State.
Mr. O'Donovan Mr. O'Donovan
Mr. O'Donovan: The Minister said there was sufficient seed to sow 9,000 acres?
Dr. Ryan Dr. Ryan
Dr. Ryan: Yes.
Mr. O'Donovan Mr. O'Donovan
Mr. O'Donovan: The latest figures given are 275 tons of the pure light pedigree seed.
Dr. Ryan Dr. Ryan
Dr. Ryan: I am not able to work that out quickly enough, but it takes about eight stone——
Mr. O'Donovan Mr. O'Donovan
Mr. O'Donovan: It would sow about 5,500 acres.
Dr. Ryan Dr. Ryan
Dr. Ryan: At any rate, the information I have got from an inspector who visited the North and inquired into the matter and also information from a Canadian firm who sold most of this pedigree seed is that there should be sufficient to grow about 9,000 acres. I do not think there will be any difficulty about the seed. The seed merchants in the Free State, who always got their seed from wholesalers in the North, can get sufficient to sow more, I think, than will be sown in the Free State.
I think it is very difficult to have any policy of flax growing for this year, and when I said to Deputy O'Donovan yesterday that I could not announce a policy for the present. I had in mind exactly what Deputy O'Donovan has outlined himself, and that is, that we can have no long term policy of flax  growing until we have our own spinning mills. The Deputy knows quite well, and Deputies from the North will also know, that our only market at present is to sell to Northern Ireland spinners. Northern Ireland spinners will, I am quite sure, buy all the flax made here this year, or at least there is a very fair chance that they will, because they are not getting flax from Russia. When they were getting flax from Russia, they were quite prepared to take that flax at whatever price they could get it at and they were not prepared to give their own growers a penny more than the price they were giving for the Russian flax, with the result that prices in 1931 went down to 5/6 a stone and our acreage fell off here and in the Six Counties. Now prices have gone up very much because the Russian flax is not coming in, but if, by any chance, within the next nine months, the Russians were to change their policy or if any other country were to come along with a large crop of flax which would supply the Northern Ireland spinners, our flax would be left on our hands and, therefore, it is impossible for the Government to guarantee a market for the flax until we get our own spinners going.
I did receive that deputation from the Federation of Irish industries to-day and I said exactly what Deputy O'Donovan advised me to say— “We will grow flax if you start spinning mills” —and until we get them going, I am afraid the position is going to remain as it is. I think that there is a very fair chance that all the flax that will be grown in the Free State this year will get a good sale, because it is not likely, I take it, that the Russians will change their policy or that any European country will jump in and grow a big acreage of flax this year. Therefore, the North of Ireland people will take it. We are quite prepared to supply a number of instructors if required in any area in which the flax is being grown. Of course, in Monaghan, Donegal, Cavan and in West Cork, too, instructors are scarcely required for the growing of the flax, at any rate, because the farmers there know how to grow it all right, but it required they will be available.
 Apart from that, as I say, I do not think we can do any more. I should like Deputy O'Donovan and members of the Opposition to look at this in a reasonable way. I think they will agree that it would not be fair for the Government to encourage flax growing on a big scale unless we could guarantee a market, and we cannot do that. We can offer the opinion, just as any Deputy can, that there will be a good market. I believe there will be, and I should like to see the farmers going into flax growing to a certain extent, at any rate. We will give all the assistance possible. We will see that they get seed; we will see that they get instruction; and we will hope  that they will get a market. That is all we can do. We are approaching the question in a different way. We are investigating the possibility of starting spinning mills and supplying our own linen factories from these mills, and if we get those going we will know definitely the amount of flax we can grow and we can guarantee a price for a certain acreage. Of course, in a case of that kind, some special legislation will be required, such as we had in regard to tobacco, to license growers so that there would not be a surplus, but I am afraid that, until we reach that stage, we cannot do any more.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.50 p.m. until 3 o'clock on Wednesday, 27th February.
Dáil Éireann 54 In Committee on Finance. Adjournment Debate: Flax Growing.