Sir Basil Brooke (Later Lord Brookeborough)

Picture Caption
A printed message from Sir Basil Brooke, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, in which he welcomes the United States forces to Northern Ireland. 1943. © PRONI Reference: CAB/3A/47

Click for Printable Version
Click for Full Size Image
Who's Who: Sir Basil Brooke

Sir Basil Stanlake Brooke became Northern Ireland’s third prime minister in 1943 following the resignation of John Miller Andrews. Born on the Brooke family estate at Colebrooke, County Fermanagh, on 9 June 1888, he became Sir Basil in 1907 when he inherited the baronetcy on the death of his father.

Brooke served in the Army in the First World War with 10th Royal Hussars, earning the Military Cross and Croix de Guerre. He left the Army in 1920 and returned to Colebrooke to farm his estates. The following year he was elected as a member of the Northern Ireland Senate but resigned to become Fermanagh County Commandant of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). At this time the USC was engaged heavily in a campaign against the IRA.

In 1929 Brooke returned to politics when he was elected as MP for the Lisnaskea division of Fermanagh in the Northern Ireland Parliament. He was recognised as a man of ability and, in 1933, was appointed Minister of Agriculture. When war was declared he still held this office and his ministry was the most effective and efficient in the Government. Agricultural output increased greatly and an ambitious programme of modernisation was begun; agriculture was the principal success story of Northern Ireland’s war effort. Brooke proved a most energetic minister and in 1941 he was appointed as Minister for Commerce and Production where his abilities were put to even wider use.

In 1943 Sir Basil Brooke was selected to succeed John Miller Andrews as Prime Minister. He remained in that role until his resignation due to ill-health in 1963. He was created First Viscount Brookeborough in 1952.

Although he ended the war as Prime Minister, Brooke’s greatest contribution to the war effort had been as Minister of Agriculture. In December 1940, he wrote to every farmer in Northern Ireland stressing the importance of their role: ‘The task is urgent and it requires all the energy and drive of which you are capable’.

That ‘task’ was to increase the acreage under cultivation so that more food crops could be grown. When Brooke wrote that letter, just before Christmas 1940, there had already been a 40 per cent increase in land ploughed and cropped. By 1943 some 851,000 acres were under the plough, double the 1939 figure. The main crops were flax, oats and potatoes with some wheat, barley and mixed corn but it was felt that the local climate was best suited to the first three.

During the war farms became much more mechanised and farmers made much greater use of artificial fertilisers; the quantity of such fertilisers increased threefold by the winter of 1943–4. To assist the mechanisation programme the Ministry took close control of the supply and distribution of machinery while financial incentives were offered to small farmers to make most effective use of tractors and other machinery.

Twelve potato-processing factories were built and seven new milk pasteurising depots set up. Milk production rose from 14m gallons (63.6m litres) before the war to 35m (159m litres) by 1945 with over 3m gallons (13.6m litres) exported to Britain in the last year of war. Dried milk production increased from 0.5m gallons (2.27m litres) to more than 8m gallons (36.4m litres) in the same period. With milk a critical part of the diet, the National Milk Scheme ensured that free, or reduced price, milk was available for children and expectant mothers. In 1942 the Milk in Schools Scheme was created to ensure that all schoolchildren received a minimum quantity of liquid milk. By contrast butter production remained static since it was not considered an essential foodstuff and the manufacture of cream was banned.

Although there were increases in the numbers of dairy and beef cattle, the numbers of other traditional farm animals decreased: from 895,000 sheep in 1939 to 654,000 by 1945 and from 627,000 pigs to 249,000. Poultry numbers increased as did egg production.

Northern Ireland farms helped make up some of the shortfall in potato production that resulted from German occupation of the Channel Islands. Another commodity affected by German occupation was flax as Belgium had provided important machinery for the industry and new sources had to be found. The war saw a short-lived revival of the flax industry to meet needs that could no longer be met by imports.

The war years changed the face of agriculture in Northern Ireland with increased use of machinery and artificial fertilisers bringing about a revolution in farming practices. This can be best illustrated by comparing practices in Northern Ireland with those across the border which had changed very little between 1939 and 1945. Agriculture in Northern Ireland truly became an industry during the war. Although some commentators have suggested that Brooke, who was perceived as being anti-Catholic, did not have the same success with Catholic farmers as with Protestants there is no real evidence to sustain this argument.  

By Richard Doherty