Many sweet years before all turned sour

 

The closure of the sugar beet processing factory in Mallow has brought to an end a 155-year-old industry, writes Seán MacConnell

Sugar beet production in Ireland can be traced back to 1851 when the Royal Irish Beet-Root Sugar Factory was founded at Mountmellick. Unfortunately this attempt to replace the already substantial imports of sugar failed after 10 years.

The second attempt was much more successful when the fledgling State decided it needed a sugar industry and set up the Carlow sugar factory plant in 1926.

However, by 1933, when the economy was in a very depressed state, the State set up Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann to operate as a manufacturing and trading concern under the Companies Acts in the same way as private enterprise companies to secure the future of the plant, which had been in doubt.

Within 12 months the government had established three further factories at Mallow, Thurles and Tuam. The Carlow factory was at that stage producing 13,400 tonnes of sugar per annum. The country was also importing 85,000 tonnes to supplement this.

By 1936 almost 28,000 farmers were growing sugar beet - in 22 counties nationwide. In that year the growers produced 500,000 tonnes of beet.

Cut off from sugar supplies during the second World War, by 1945 the four factories were producing nearly 89,000 tonnes of sugar. That year only 156 tonnes were imported.

The 1939-45 period saw the departure of foreign workers who had operated most of the skilled jobs in the plants. They were called back to their own countries and Irish workers skilled up successfully to work the plants.

In the 1950s the sugar company diversified into the production and distribution of lime for Irish land and at one stage operated a number of quarries and a fleet of 300 lorries for this purpose.

In 1982-83, when the company had been producing approximately 200,000 tonnes of white sugar annually, it embarked on a long-term capital programme which resulted in the Carlow and Mallow factories being substantially expanded, but then rationalisation also brought about the closure of the Tuam and Thurles plants.

The closure of these plants despite increased output in Carlow and Mallow effectively drove beet production into the southern and midland counties.

The company was privatised in 1991 and became part of the Greencore Plc group, earning the name Irish Sugar Plc.

The industry performed well despite an uneasy relationship with growers, but in January 2005 the company announced the closure of the Carlow factory.

This was against the background of the European Commission's decision to reform the sugar industry and to cut the supports it paid to growers to meet commitments in the World Trade Organisation negotiations.

Once the Carlow factory closed its doors and the commission announced that supports would be cut by 37 per cent this year, the closure of Mallow was inevitable.

The 3,700 beet growers who remained in place were deeply divided as to whether they should opt for compensation or attempt to continue growing for another year.

Last week the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mary Coughlan, removed a major obstacle for those growers who wanted to quit by ruling that they did not need to grow beet this year.

It was clear that with €145 million in compensation available to the industry from the EU for closing its doors for good, there was no way back.

This led to the announcement yesterday by Greencore that the industry had come to an end in Ireland.