TALES FROM THE FIELDS: A strong union branch in good farming country

Mr R A Brown, on the platform, left, addresses member of the Moneymore UFU at one of the many agricultural Red Cross fundraising efforts sponsored by the branch during the Second World War
Mr R A Brown, on the platform, left, addresses member of the Moneymore UFU at one of the many agricultural Red Cross fundraising efforts sponsored by the branch during the Second World War

With members drawn from an area which began at the foothills of the Sperrins and swept towards Lough Neagh in a triangle connecting Loup, Magherafelt and Cookstown, the Moneymore branch of the Ulster Farmers’ Union in 1968 was regarded as “one of the oldest and most virile” in Northern Ireland.

The leaders of the branch confidently pointed to the firm support of over 250 members – 90 per cent of the possible membership – as completely justifying its more than 30 year’s existence.

Indeed it was noted that: “The history of the branch could well be said to represent the history in minature of the parent body, with the general advances achieved by the union being matched - and often anticipated - at local level.”

Moneymore’s success story was highlighted by three main factors – the complete faith of the farming community in the idea of a united voice in the management of the affairs, the absolute loyalty of the branch committee members of the years and the dynamic enthusiasm of Mr R A Brown of Moneyshaw, whose tireless efforts on behalf of the branch were unanimously recognised with his union presidency in 1958 considered “nothing more than he deserved”.

He said: “The depressed state of the country in those early days bound farmers together while the community efforts by the branch on behalf of the Red Cross agricultural fund campaign during the war when we subscribed £2,272 forged the links closer still.”

Despite its strength in 1968 Moneymore has firstly merely flirted with the idea of establishing a branch for several years before its official formation in 1937.

“For a few years we were connected in a loose way with the union – sending the odd subscription, organising the annual dance and only moving in a general way towards official membership,” several old-timers remarked.

The work of two local co-operatives in bringing farmers together pointed the way, backed by what some members described as “the scandalous robbery of the open market system in the sale of our produce”.

Foundation member 77-year-old Mr Alex Hartley remarked: “The union was bound to win the support in the face of the way the industry was being plundered and the farmers were held to ransom every time they went to market.

“In 1908 and for several years afterwards I sold milk at fourpence or fivepence a gallon and eggs at sixpence a dozen. In 1928 pork was 38s per cwt and beef was 32s, with subsidies in any form totally unknown.

“A decent price was simply unobtainable and the farmer was expected to absorb all the worst squeezes of the depression.”

Mr Hartley concluded: “The union offered hope, it came at the best possible time and its record since speaks for itself.”

The in-built advantage of having some of the best land in the country was not lost on the Moneymore farmers although, in earlier years, a very mixed programme with “a bit of everything thrown in” was the main feature.

The specialist farmer was the exception and the family business element eliminated any labour problem.

Mr Hartley said: “The industry was about to emerge as we know it today and while government is entitled to fair credit the promptings by the union served – and continue

to serve – a most useful purpose.”

Branch secretary Mr W J E Thompson of Ballindrum, who ran a 256 acre holding together with considerable conacre lettings in partnership with his brother, said that the influence of the union in the area “goes without saying, although I often wonder if that influence is as great as formerly”.

He added: “The pressure on the industry at the moment is enormous. Indeed it is now a question of just how far the farmer can be expected to go.

“The UFU is, of course, unique in being a union of employers rather than employees while the fact that non-members reap union benefits is a farcical situation which will be difficult to remedy.”