The disaster that is the Irish fishing industry

For reasons rooted in a conversation I had 45 years ago, with the then Junior Minister for Fisheries, Brian Lenihan, to which I will return shortly in this blog, I recently had occasion to speculate once again that in all probability the bullock did more harm to the Irish economy than did the late Oliver Cromwell.

My musing was prompted by yet another sorry personal experience involving the Irish political system and the disaster area known as the Irish fishing industry.

The saga began last October when I made a suggestion to Minister A) Eamon O’Cuiv, who is Chairman of the Irish National Famine Committee, that the Famine should be commemorated, not merely by a State Commemoration ceremony, but by sending to a particularly impoverished African country, Sierra Leone, which has rich, but unexploited fishing grounds, some of the  trawlers which were about to be decommissioned from the Irish fishing fleet under EU rules.

I argued that the destruction of the up-to-date trawlers was wasteful and wrong both for itself, our carbon footprint, and the related fact that we would obviously be cutting our Aid budget because of the economic crisis, and that therefore here was a golden opportunity to both demonstrate our concern for the third world, and the truth of the old aid adage: Feed a man you feed a person. Teach a man to fish and you feed a village.

A handful of the now unemployed Irish fishermen traveling with the trawlers could very easily have translated axiom into action, a fact recognized by the FAO representative in Freetown who was enthusiastic about the idea, as was a senior EU official stationed there.

Without taking up further space by discussing other ancillary steps based on Irish experience, which could easily have been undertaken taken also, such as providing basic freezing facilities and some elementary transport, suffice it to say that by January of this year my promptings had eventually resulted in O’Cuiv’s sending my proposal to  Minister B) in charge of fishing, Brendan Smith.

The reaction showed all the drive and initiative of a dead mackerel. Following further prompting from me O’Cuiv finally prised another letter from Smith in March promising to come back to me when he had “further information” on the matter. As Smith had yet to provide any information whatever that “further” reminded me of the apocryphal story of the RTE flash which stated that “A large hole has opened on the Naas dual carriageway and the Gardai are looking into it.”

At this stage a senior figure in the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Irish Aid section took up my cause and within 48 hours had discovered what was happening – while I was being kept at bay for almost six months with “send the fool further” letters, the trawlers were being broken up. The last of them was being destroyed as my DFA friend e-mailed me.

On the same day that I was made aware of this codology (is there a more appropriate term?) the regular fish auction was taking place at Rosseveal on the Connemara coast. Here, the shambolic nature of the Irish fishing industry was underscored for the millionth time. Prices were such that 300 boxes of haddock sold for one, repeat one, euro each.

Also on the same day haddock, one of the choicest fish in the sea, were selling for five euro each in Dublin. That weekend I was taken to dinner in one of Dublin’s top fish restaurants. Haddock was 17 euro fifty cent  a fillet and the “Dublin Bay prawns” which accompanied it on the menu were in fact imported from Thailand.

So what caused the difficulties I encountered in trying to salvage the trawlers.? Inefficiency? Arrogance? Wastefulness? The fact that some cute hoor deal had been done by someone, somewhere, somehow so that it became lucrative to destroy good fishing boats?

One answer might well be: “All of the above.” But a more fundamental cause goes back to that conversation I had with Brian Lenihan (the present Minister for Finance’s father) back in the 60s when Ireland was planning to enter the European Economic Community ( EEC) as it was then known. The conversation occurred during an interview I was conducting with the junior Minister – that status should have given me a clue – on the prospects for developing the vast untapped fisheries potential of the Irish coastline.

Brian, a pleasant man, interrupted me suddenly to ask “Tim Pat! Do you know how many whole time and part time farmers there are in this country?”

I did not know exactly but he rattled off the answer correct to a decimal point (around a quarter million, as I remember). Then he asked me did I know how many whole time and part time fishermen there were in the country. “including lobster men, currachmen, and the teacher who goes out in the summer night with a net after a few salmon?”

Again I could not reply with certainty but Brian could again answer with pin point accuracy, something just over 9,000 as I recall. “That”, he continued, “would hardly elect one Fianna Fail TD on the first count in a five seater. Now do you get me?.”

I did. What he was telling me in effect was that the farming lobby had political clout, the fishermen did not and that in the forthcoming Brussels EEC negotiations the mackerel would be traded off against the bullock.

And so it proved. Negotiations stalled for a time, because General de Gaulle vetoed the British entry, but  eventually, in 1973 Ireland joined the club  The farmers prospered mightily, but the fishing industry was never became a great deal more than a means of subsidising the Irish language, which it was at the time of entry.

Development within the fishing industry was more or less governed by its scale at the time of joining the EEC. A handful of fishermen made fortunes around traditional fishing centers such as Killybegs. But fishing limits were restricted and overall Irish quotas were fixed at low levels.

Landings continued to be irregular, boats repossessed, vital infrastructure, such as transportation and freezing facilities neglected. Above all little money was devoted to the education of fishermen – a trawler is after all a small, sea-going factory, part of a complex process in which a business training is as necessary as a course in navigation. In many cases Paddy learned too late that if you drink last week’s catch, you may not have boat to catch anything next week..

It was as though the fact that the Apaches did not develop gold mines meant that it was OK for the white man to take them.

From a vantage point on the Aran Islands one windy night, I looked out at the Atlantic. There was nothing between me and Boston and the night should have been black and howling. It howled all right but the sea was lit up as if  magically a town had appeared. The “town” was an armada of French trawlers from L’Orient, fishing the rich prawn grounds off  Aran’s western cliffs. And it wasn’t only European Union nations which profited from the denudation of Irish fishing grounds.

Another time, on the South East Coast, off Wexford, returning from France, our ferry sailed though a flotilla of  forty two Russian trawlers, accompanied by two huge factory vessels which were also towing nets.

And so the rape of the Irish coastal waters has meant, as it meant world wide, that fish stocks must be conserved, resulting in wasteful side-effects such as the destruction of the trawlers I was interested in. Brian Lenihan certainly  knew what he was talking about. I only hope his son Brian, can manage the nation’s finances rather better than his ministerial colleagues dealt with my interest in their fate.

- First published 2nd April 2009 at IrishCentral.com