Thursday, 22 February 1951
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Dunne: Question 21, which I addressed to the Minister for Lands to-day, had to do with the strike of forestry workers which has continued at Blessington, Co. Wicklow, for almost five weeks, with one break of about ten days. I think it is essential that the facts concerning this strike should be brought out into the open because, in my view, they reflect very great discredit on the Department of Lands and on the Minister. This strike took place originally on the 8th January. On that occasion, a number of men working at the forestry at Blessington were informed that a certain charge-hand would be placed in charge of them. This charge-hand had had a previous history of employment with the Department. On the occasion of his previous employment, some time prior to this, the men concerned from the Blessington area, because of the foul and filthy language which was used by the charge-hand to them, made representations to the forester, as a result of which the charge-hand was removed from his position of being in charge of the men. The charge-hand for a period was then out sick and was engaged in other employment.
It was indicated to the men prior to the 8th January that he was resuming in charge of this particular gang, and that he would have the authority which he had before. I have concrete evidence, and there is, I submit, on the files of the Department of Lands evidence which cannot be challenged,  which shows very clearly that the person in question—I shall name him if the Minister or any Deputy so desires —is unfit and unqualified, by reason of his disposition, by reason of his attitude to the workers, by reason of the filthy language which he uses to the workers, and by reason of his insulting behaviour to the workers, to be in charge of any body of men, not alone in this country but in any country.
As I say, these men took strike action on learning that this man, this charge-hand, was being put in charge of them. I took an early opportunity of having the matter brought to the Minister's attention. I may say that I did so with the greatest difficulty. I came up against certain difficulties in regard to officials in the forestry section of the Department of Lands, difficulties which I have become so used to now. On a previous occasion, I had to refer here to the fact that I was refused details, although a member of this House, by that section in regard to the conditions under which men are employed by the Department of Lands on forestry work. I had occasion to refer to that in the House. That attitude of mind which characterises the officials in the forestry section of the Department, as far as my experience goes, was carried over into this dispute. However, eventually, after some difficulty I did reach the Minister, the result being that the Minister interviewed some of the men who were on strike.
I want to say this, that an undertaking was given to me, and the men were definitely put under the impression by the Minister, that if they resumed work the charge-hand in question would be removed. The men, being ordinary, simple countrymen, assumed that that undertaking would be honoured and resumed work. They found, however, that the man was not removed. Instead of removing him, the Minister sent out two inspectors who, on a couple of days, met the men concerned, and asked had this particular charge-hand been abusive and had he used the language previously complained of. Of course, it was quite obvious what had been going on. This man was careful for the period during the resumption of work and did  not, in fact, commit himself as far as could be discovered during that particular period. But I have evidence of an unquestionable nature to the effect that this man, while a charge-hand employed by the forestry section, used language which cannot be used here, but which I am sure Deputies can very well visualise, casting as I said earlier to-day, doubts upon the legitimacy of the workers, each and all of them, and accepting money from one worker so that, as was the phrase used, “he might let him alone”—accepting a sum of 2/6 from a badly paid worker in order to induce him from bullying and threatening him and treating this issue of taking the money in question as a great joke.
That is the type of individual against whom the Minister says no case can be made. I say that that is the case. We have 30 men, most of them married men, out on strike in Blessington, where it is very hard to get a job. We all know that it is very hard to get a job in West Wicklow. The Minister suggests that these men are out just to pass their time or for amusement, as was suggested to-day. Then, I think, he cast doubts upon the sanity of the men concerned. These are ordinary, simple, decent countrymen.
Mr. Dunne: You suggested, in your reply to-day, that there was no reason for these men to be out on strike. If the Minister suggests that, he is suggesting that they are doing something which is irresponsible, which has no sense in it, and is insane. If there was no reason for these men to put on themselves the hardship of a strike, they would be insane; but there is a hard, concrete solid reason for it. As far as I am concerned as a member of the House—this is not my constituency, and these men are not my constituents and there are other Deputies who represent them— I feel it my duty, in ordinary common justice, to raise the matter here so that the facts will be made known. But here, in the year 1951, a Department of State is standing over the employment of an unfit individual, so  that men have to go out and stop work and undergo the hardship and privation which are inevitable when strikes occur, as well as the loss of income. Their families are suffering, too, simply because the Department insists upon upholding this individual who, as I have said, is unfit and totally unqualified by reason of his attitude to be in charge of men.
I want to say that it is a disgusting thing that I should have to bring this up here at all. If this occurred in any employment outside of the forestry section of the Department of Lands, I am quite satisfied that it would not be necessary to mention a second time that this conduct was going on. I would say that, if it happened in any other employment, the employer, if he was any way reasonable, would immediately, in his own interests if not from the point of view of ordinary common decency, remove an individual of this type. Here we have the Minister saying he can discover nothing wrong with the man, although it can be seen from the files of the Department that when previous complaints were made in the Blessington area to the forester in charge by the men concerned and other men who are not under his control at present this individual had to be removed. He is not a local of the area, and he is not even married. He does not qualify to be a charge-hand because I have documents in my possession from the Department of Lands which indicate that a man to be appointed a charge-hand in the forestry section must have three years' continuous service. This man has not had three years' continuous service, yet he is appointed a charge-hand. He abuses the men foully, and we have the position that 30 men and their families are being sacrificed to suit this individual. There is something wrong with that. This man must have very influential friends either in the forestry section or outside, but at least in the employment of the forestry section, who are keeping him where he is.
I am asking the Minister now in the interests of common humanity, decency and justice to get rid of this individual from the Blessington forest and to allow these men to go back without having  the fear of being bullied hanging over their heads and so that they will not have to listen to language which should not be heard by any workmen. That kind of conduct went on years ago before we had trade unions and when workers were not organised. It may go on still in some parts of the country, but it will not be accepted in County Dublin from the State or from any employer. It will not be accepted on the borders of the county or in County Wicklow. No decent man in this part of the country will work under such a charge-hand. I ask the Minister even now to get rid of this man.
Mr. Blowick: Deputy Dunne would appear to picture me as having taken little or no interest, or not having been inclined to take a fair line of action or conduct, in this particular matter. Let us take this matter from the beginning. The particular charge-hand who is objected to commenced work for the first time in Ballyward centre on January 8th as a charge-hand. He was a labourer up to that for a considerable time. On the morning that he was to take up duty as charge-hand the men refused to work for him. In other words, as soon as they knew he was appointed they said they would not work under him. They never had an opportunity of knowing what he was like as a charge-hand, except one man who worked under him as a charge-hand in a forest centre about four miles away. It is not correct to say that he was removed by the forestry section from the post of charge-hand in the forest centre at Deerpark three or four miles away. He went off work there in the previous June on account of his health. There was no need for a second charge-hand in the Ballyward centre until January last when it was necessary to split up the gang of men working there and appoint a second charge-hand and the forester in charge appointed this particular man. He was appointed on Saturday evening and the following Monday when he went to work the men refused to work for him. With the exception of one man, they never had an opportunity of knowing what he was like as a charge-hand. Deputy Dunne took an interest in the  matter and asked me to meet the men. The Deputy stated that it was with difficulty that he contacted me.
Mr. Blowick: It may be so for this reason, that perhaps I was engaged on other business when the Deputy tried to get in touch with me. That happens to every Minister and will continue to happen to every Minister.
Mr. Dunne: I should explain that when efforts were made from my office to make an appointment with the Minister one of the Minister's officials told one of my officials that if the matter related to Blessington I need not bother because the Minister would not see me. Perhaps the Minister does not know that.
Mr. Blowick: Not alone do I make it a point to meet Deputies but I also make it a point to meet deputations. I think it is only right that a Minister should see Deputies and deputations just as Deputies receive deputations in their own constituencies and elsewhere. That is time well spent. To come back to the matter under discussion, do not forget that it was not on the Director of Forestry the men were striking; they were striking against me. A Minister is responsible for his Department. I took the unusual step then of meeting a number of these men and discussing the matter with them. I have every sympathy with them. I know that men do not strike just for fun and that is why I took offence at Deputy Corry's attitude at Question Time to-day. But when men go on strike I like to be assured that they have a good and just cause.
In this particular instance I say that if the men reflect on the matter they will find they have not a just cause. I say that without in any way detracting from them. Neither do I hold that they have embarked on this strike  lightly. In the first instance they went back to work on my advice. Deputy Dunne says that I gave them an undertaking. I did not give them an undertaking. I will quote their own words for Deputy Dunne in that regard. The only undertaking I gave them was that I would have the verbal complaints they made to me investigated. I thought the complaints serious enough to merit the sending down of two of the senior officials of my Department with strict instructions that they were to query everybody, the men themselves, the forester in charge and the particular head labourer concerned, in order to get for me a fully impartial report of what was happening. The men were questioned and Mr. “X”, as we will call him, stated quite definitely several times that they were treated properly by the head labourer during the week. The men stated that the Minister gave them no promise of any kind.
Mr. Blowick: He definitely said that in the presence of his companions. The particular head labourer was not present so that he could not have had any evil influence, as was suggested; neither could he have intimidated the men into saying something that was not correct. The men went back to work and during that week they said the head labourer did not use bad language. I cannot say whether or not he has a foul tongue, but he certainly has not used it while acting as head labourer over these men. That is why I say they have not a just cause for striking. I can assure Deputy Dunne that the moment I get positive proof that any man in charge of men is using foul language—I will not be squeamish  about it—I will take action. I am sure this man can give his orders in whatever language he uses—English or Irish or whatever it is—plainly and simply without the abuse that Deputy Dunne alleges. I do not believe any man would be so foul-mouthed as Deputy Dunne alleges this head labourer to be.
Mr. Blowick: I have no desire to stand over the ill-treatment of any men. I would not ask any men in the pay of my Department to put up with it. I have heard no complaint since these men returned to work. Deputy Dunne asked me to discharge this man in the name of justice and humanity. I know nothing about him except his name. I would not have known he existed had this matter not arisen. He has been working with my Department since 1939 with a short break during the war years.
Mr. Blowick: He has had two separate periods of more than three years' continuous service. He has  merited his promotion from labourer to head labourer. In the name of that justice and humanity of which Deputy Dunne speaks, why should I remove him unless I have just cause for doing so? Why should I deny that head labourer the increase in pay to which his promotion entitles him? Why should I refuse him a higher status without just cause? If I find just cause to take disciplinary action I will take it, not for the sake of inflicting a wound but for the sake of the men and for the good of the Department. I have no just cause to take action against this man, and if I deprive him of his pay I would feel compelled to make restitution to him. I am sure the officials I sent down to investigate did not deceive me, and I am bound in conscience and justice not to deprive this man of something he has earned until such time as I get cause to do so. If I find at any time that the men are being unfairly or harshly treated I will take prompt and swift action.
Mr. Blowick: I am not suggesting they were telling lies. It would not be fair to condemn the head labourer behind his back. The men admitted to the two senior officials sent to investigate that not a single word to which exception could be taken had been used by this man during those six or seven days and the forester tells me that the same is true of the period right up to the strike. I appeal to Deputy Dunne to urge these men to go back to work. Their present attitude  is not helping the forestry drive. I am not anxious to stand over any head labourer who is unfair or harsh to his workers or uses bad language to them.
Mr. Hickey: If a complaint has been made that this man is using unparliamentary language to his men, the only way in which to clear the matter up is to have responsible officials of the Minister's Department meet Deputy Dunne to discover whether or not these charges are justified rather than waste the time of the House without any approach to finality.
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