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Brown Gold, A history of Bord na Móna and the peat industry in Ireland by Donal Clarke

Reviewer: Tom O’Connor*

“Some 80 German internees were employed and they were transported daily from the Curragh [Camp] by lorry” (p.57). A surprising statement yet one which typifies the varied activities associated with Bord na Móna (BnM), a state-sponsored development agency. In referring to its mission Seán Lemass, Minister for Industry and Commerce, had said: “In developing our natural resources instead of importing our requirements, we will not merely add to the wealth of the country, but will give directly a great deal of employment in localities where that employment will have very beneficial reactions (Dáil Debates, vol.99, col.1333, 21 February 1946). Donal Clarke, former Head of Corporate Affairs at BnM , traces the history of the company in considerable detail, covering its changing corporate status, its formal development plans and its diverse production programme. The author also supplies two appendices - biographical sketches of persons associated with peat development in Ireland and a list of ministers and departments to which the agency reported.

Established under the Companies Acts as the Turf Development Board in 1934 it became Bord na Móna, a statutory corporation, under the Turf Development Act 1946. The corporate status changed to Bord na Móna plc following the enactment of the Turf Development Act 1997. Mary O’Rourke, Minister for Public Enterprise, explained: “As a commercial company now operating in highly competitive markets, it is desirable that Bord na Móna should be reconstituted as a public limited company under the Companies Acts” (Dáil Debates, vol.483(1), col.89, 19 November 1997). Over the years BnM expanded and diversified and its products now include peat briquettes, milled peat for electricity, wind energy, distribution of oil, horticultural products notably peat moss, pollution abatement systems and waste management resources.

Of particular interest is the role of the agency during the war years and the major task of recruiting workers and developing virgin bog, notably the Kildare scheme. One is impressed by the pioneering spirit of the organisation and its miscellaneous activities, developing virgin bogs, designing machinery, building railways and providing hostels and housing schemes for workers in the form of attractive village schemes. “The first and second programmes involved an enormous development of bogs, roads, bridges, railways and buildings, and alongside that the design and purchase of a great number of machines (p.118). They can boast of building “a railway bridge over the Shannon, the first bridge to have been constructed across the river in a hundred years” (p.79). An official of BNM could declare in 1959: “However, watching the long train-loads of turf or milled peat moving gracefully over the bog on a fine summer’s day, on the way to factory, power station or more distant destinations, one feels a certain sense of achievement when one remembers the virgin state of the bog a few short years ago when we first made our acquaintance with it” (Administration, vol.7(1), p.61).

The book provides a comprehensive description of the operations and achievements of a progressive organisation but one would prefer a more thematic approach, one which, in particular, would reflect the dynamics of BnM as a state-sponsored agency. For this purpose some of the material should be recast. For example the author might outline and discuss relations with Ministers and officials in the formulation and implementation of public policy. Why not have a separate chapter devoted to the corporate status and discuss BnM’s valuable experiences on the appointment and performance of directors, the role of worker directors and the Employee Share Ownership Plan. Capitalisation and pricing policy also require special treatment including its distinctive relationship with another state body, the Electricity Supply Board. The ESB was and is an essential customer for milled peat but it frequently demurred when coal was much cheaper - cross-subsidisation in effect. One of the benefits of the state equity injection in the 1990’s was to enable BnM to reduce prices payable by ESB.

How about a separate chapter on industrial relations including the emergence of the Partnership for Progress, an agreement which rewarded enterprise and gave workers considerable freedom in determining their work programmes. A final chapter might sketch the overall impact of BnM on the economy, leading to the inevitable question of whether the company is now ripe for privatisation.