Tuesday, 18 May 2021
The first Anglo-Irish Guinness crisis
The food supply in the Republic of Ireland must have been affected by the war, especially for things like wheat which had been imported. Ireland needed to be supplied by sea and German U-boats would still sink ships bound for Ireland, even though the country was neutral. And obviously Guinness was a good lever to force the UK to provide more grain.
On the one hand, international maritime trade was severely, making it hard to import raw materials or food. On the other, the UK was easily Ireland’s biggest trading partner. Exports to the UK were hugely important for the country’s finances. There’s one pretty obvious Irish export to Britain: Guinness.
While selling Guinness to the UK might have been important financially, it couldn’t come at the expense of Ireland starving. Or going thirsty. The trouble kicked off early in 1942, when the Irish government indicated that no licences would be issued for the export of Guinness unless the UK exported 200,000 tons of wheat to Ireland. The wheat was needed as Ireland was running short of grains for making bread.
Ironically, Ireland’s difficulties were prompted by the USA’s entry into the war. Ireland had been importing American wheat via the neutral port of Lisbon, but after joining the war these shipments ended. Leaving Ireland about 80,000 tons of wheat short, if the supply of bread was to be maintained at its present level. The short-term solution was to use 20,000 tons of barley which would have between used to brew beer for export and divert it to bread production. And to ban beer exports.
This presented a huge problem for Northern Ireland, where between 70% and 80% of the beer sold was Guinness. Northern Ireland only possessed a single brewery, which was far too small to supply all the pubs in the province. Only relatively modest amounts were imported from the rest of the UK, mostly typical export beers such as Bass, Worthington and William Younger.
Nowhere else in the UK sourced three-quarters of its beer from a single brewery. But it wasn’t just Northern Irish publicans who were likely to lose out. Guinness themselves would lose a big chunk of their sales. In 1942 more than half the beer they brewed was exported.
A suggestion was made to provide the Ulster Brewery – the only producer in Northern Ireland – with more materials so that it could boost production by 25%. But that would still have fallen well short of replacing the beer usually supplied by Guinness.
The crisis was resolved in a couple of weeks, with the first fresh supplies of Guinness arriving in pubs on March 16th, 1942. The quantities supplied were the same as before the export ban.
At the time both sides were cagey about exactly how a resolution had been achieved. A couple of months later, in response to a question in the House of Commons, Major Lloyd George, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, assured MPs that no cereals had been exported from the UK to Ireland since January 1st 1941.
They must have done something to change the Irish government’s mind. What could it have been? Knowing how tricky politicians can be, perhaps the UK had grain shipped directly to Ireland from elsewhere, allowing the official to truthfully say none had been exported from the UK.