Bygone Days: Ulster milk levy row threatens to ‘boil over' in bitter acrimony (1977)
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The board's approval to defer the final decision until the December meeting brought critical reaction from Mr James Dunn, minister in charge of agriculture in Northern Ireland. He told the board bluntly that the first payment was due in mid-December and they had no option but to conform to the law.
The next monthly meeting of the board was not due until December 19, four days after the date on which the money is due to be handed over to the government agency. In view of the “clash” with the minister it was felt in some circles that the board might arrange an earlier meeting to clarify the position.
Mr Dunn's statement, which came after comments by Dr George Chambers, managing director of the board, said: “It is the law that the Milk Marketing Board must, without conditions, pay the co-responsibility levy. The first payment is due in mid-December. The board have no option but to conform to the law and any other action could not be accepted.
“The Milk Marketing Board was set up primarily to market milk within the prevailing price support arrangements - no more and no less. It does not have a role to represent producers' views on the level at which milk prices are supported or guaranteed; the Ulster Farmers' Union has that responsibility, and the government recognise that fact.”
Explaining the background to the board's decision to defer until its December meeting the final decision on the handing over to the intervention board of the proceeds of the first six weeks of the so-called co-responsibility levy, Dr Chambers said: "This levy has been introduced throughout the EEC but large groups of producers in virtually every member state have expressed unease about it and some reluctance to pay.
“Surely, therefore, it should be no great surprise to anyone that the board in Northern Ireland has reservations about paying the levy when our producers are already the poorest paid in the EEC and have so far been given no firm indication of remedial action either for the present financial year or for 1978/79.
“Those who criticise the board for being slow to hand over the £180,000 of Northern Ireland producers' money involved in the first instalment should remember that the uncertainty about future pricing of milk in the province has been hanging over the board and its producers for no less than six months; and that we are now only four weeks away from the critical period and still do not have the slightest indication of what is to be done. Producers have been very patient but their patience is running out; and the board's deferment of the decision on the co-responsibility funds was but one indication of that fact.”
Speaking earlier in the week Dr Chambers said that there was still no news of a government initiative to avert the crisis that would arise for Ulster dairy farmers in 1978 as a result of the government's intended milk policy.
That policy, he said, represented a denial of EEC conditions to Northern Ireland producers; and if it was not amended, it would result in their receiving milk prices that were at least seven-pence a gallon (around 15 per cent) less than producer prices in Great Britain and in the Irish Republic.
Dr Chambers said that the patience of producers was also being sorely tested through the failure to determine exactly what was to be the future of the board itself. He said: “For about seven years milk producers throughout the United Kingdom have had to bear the burden of uncertainty about whether the highly successful marketing systems that they have built up over decades will be allowed to survive or must succumb to the ideologies of EEC theorists.
“Despite seven years of talk, the uncertainty about the future of the board is as great today as it ever was . . .For milk producers in Northern Ireland the world need not end if the board has to be changed into a province-wide co-operative; but if that is to be our fate or our destiny, the sooner we know about it the better.”