Journeys to a Free State: Opportunities in Belgium
On 22 May 1922 Count Gerald O'Kelly de Gallagh et Tycooly, the Irish Provisional Government Consul at Brussels, arrived in Cork on a trade mission. His ongoing work was important for the economic development of Ireland and for regions such as Cork, and especially as the Provisional Government was heading out on its own to carve out new markets.
‘The Irish Dictionary of Irish Biography’ outlines that in July 1919 Gerald was appointed by Arthur Griffith as a Sinn Féin Irish agent to Switzerland.
That year Gerald was also active in the Irish delegation to the Paris peace conference. He continued to be the Dáil Éireann representative to Switzerland until March 1921 and he was Ireland's unofficial diplomatic agent in Brussels from April 1921 to 1923. He held the official nomination of Irish trade agent to Belgium from 1923 to September 1929.
A Cork Examiner representative conducted an interview with Gerald at the council room of the Cork Chamber of Commerce at Cork’s Victoria Hotel. It was published on 24 May 1922.
Gerald outlined that the object of his Cork visit was to get into touch with trading interests in Cork, and from across Ireland generally and to explore the options of a possible opening for Irish products in the Belgian market. He devoted much of his visit in meetings with merchants and agriculturists, including a deputation from the Irish Farmers' Union. He also visited Messrs Ford's factory.
In particular, Gerald was interested in the establishment of a direct service between Cork and Antwerp, chiefly for the transport of goods and cattle. He also envisaged that it would provide accommodation for passengers if there was interest. Gerald was liaising with a Belgian company, which had several ships at its disposal, and he hoped to attract interest from Irish companies.
In his press interview Gerald briefly outlined the possibilities of the Belgian market from the point of view of the Irish exporter and importer.
Belgium as a country was about the size of Ireland’s province of Munster. Belgium's population numbered eight million with a largely effective rail service. Belgium was but a quarter of the area of Ireland, but its population was double that of Ireland.
Gerald outlined that Belgium was essentially an engineering country – he noted: “It produces heavy metals, engineering plant and machinery, all classes of railway material, electrical appliances, glass and glass ware, construction materials (cement, tiles, asbestos roofing etc); textiles (woollens and cottons), and yarns of every description. It also exports largely, as well as sugar, sugar, starch, and cattle foods.”
Gerald further detailed that the imports of the country were much needed such as cattle, horses, potatoes, oats, certain classes of woollens and linens, butter and eggs, sheep. goat and rabbit-skins – the latter being used in the manufacture of velour hats.
Regarding a possible trade in butter and eggs from Cork farmers, Gerald highlighted that Irish exporters might as well keep of that market until they were be in a position to grade exports, and then guarantee the quality in each case. That, he said was how Denmark - an exporter of those commodities managed - and to do it in a great measure was due to the ready sale of Danish butter and eggs in the different markets to which they were sent.
With regard to the proposed establishment of a cattle trade with Belgium, Gerald noted: “Ireland is the only country in Europe without land frontiers and that would consequently secure its position to give much better guarantees against foot and mouth disease. Fat cattle for slaughter would be the principal demand, but an improvement in the Belgian franc against the English pound and advantageous franc charges would be essential for the establishment of this trade on a successful footing.”
Gerald pointed out that the low value of the franc, on the other hand, gave importers from Belgium a great advantage, and that most of the articles formerly imported from England could be obtained from Belgium, and in many cases on more advantageous terms.
Concerning methods of trading, Gerald said that in many cases importers in Ireland had asked his advice as to whether they should deal direct with the manufacturer or with an export house in Belgium.
His opinion was that “if they were to deal with a very big and first-class manufacturer, who would have his own shipping department, it would be better to deal directly with him; but if not, it would be more advisable to get into touch with a reputable export firm”.
Continuing, Gerald said it would, of course, be to the advantage of trade here if they had a knowledge of French, but even if such were not the case, they would find that most of the Belgium export houses would be able to transact the business in English.
Few of the manufactures, however, used English. Belgian manufacturing traders were also well organised. In Brussels there was a body known as the Comité Contrale, which corresponded roughly to the Federation of British Industries, in England.
This Comité Contrale comprised all the important manufacturers organisations of Belgium, and its central office information concerning any particular branch of industry can be obtained. What this body does for the manufacturers, the Brussels Chamber of Commerce does for the merchants. Affiliated to the Chamber of Commerce were several hundred organisations known as Chambres Syndicales embracing practically every trade carried on in Brussels.
In regard to the construction materials manufactured in Belgium, Gerald emphasised that there were several factories in Belgium – cement works – and in one case he saw that the analysis practically doubled the British standard specifications. He noted: “In the view of the large amount of reconstruction work with which Ireland is now faced, those details regarding Belgian cement were sure to be of interest.”
Any traders that were interested in either exporting to or importing from Belgium were asked to contact Gerald. One such Cork company which used his contacts was the Irish International Trading Corporation (Cork) who used the opportunity to import glass and cement in the 1920s.