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Doors slammed on a fishing industry demanding answers

Cormac Burke,

Chairman, IFSA

Below is an interesting article from today’s which highlights the severe lack of transparency and accountability of Ireland’s Government who, it seems clear, are happy to publish anything that puts them in a good light but will sweep under the rug anything that has even a scent of corruption, back door dealing, or even basic political incompetence.

While this article focusses mainly on the infamous Mulcahy Report on alleged planning corruption in Donegal, completed in 2017 and still remains unpublished, it echoes strongly of a similar situation of an equal level of lack of transparency and accountability in the Irish fishing industry when a vital EU/Irish report seems to have been buried as it reportedly exposes a serious agenda against the fishing sector by various Government departments and State bodies.

In 2018 a major EU Audit Report into the capacity of the SFPA on how they manage within the EU fishing industry covering the period 2012 – 2015 and included contributions from some employed in the Irish fisheries monitoring body, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) and others.

But let us be clear - - this was a report investigating the SFPA not the Irish fishing industry.

The information from the report was subsequently shared with the Department for Agriculture, Food & Marine (DAFM) Minister and the SFPA and the industry was told that there were allegations against the fishing industry as a result - - but at no stage were the report’s findings given to those being accused and, despite representation made through the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and Marine by the industry, no evidence of wrongdoing has been issued and, to this day, the industry continues to defend its integrity.

When this Audit Report was shared with the minister of the day in 2018, we must note that only the Minister, his senior officials at the DAFM and the SFPA had this report at that time and yet parts of the audit report were very selectively leaked to the Irish Examinerand the Mail - - - this was intentional to distract from the true findings of the report i.e. the serious mis-management issues that existed within the SFPA and that their record keeping was substandard and haphazard, as has been reported in a recent article by the Sunday Independent.

Although never formally released, the final draft version of this document came into the hands of commercial Irish fishing industry interests and it was clear that the report found that the SFPA to be an extremely incompetent body and even hinted at a joint DAFM and SFPA agenda to work against the fishing industry.

Three previous Government reports investigating the SFPA, including one from the reputable Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC), have all come to the same common conclusion i.e. that the SFPA is an incompetent body, not worthy of the title ‘authority’ and in one case, described as “not fit for purpose”.

Indeed the PWC report (published April 2021) went as far as to state: “A significant programme of change will be required across a range of areas over the short, medium and long term.

In the short term, this will require the SFPA to reset the dial, both in terms of strategic plan for organisation and its interactions with staff and stakeholders.

This is critical as without establishing these essential building blocks it will be challenging to manage the SFPA in an effective manner, to build on these foundations and further develop the SFPA over the medium to long term and deliver on core obligations.”

The previous EU Audit Report also obligated the DAFM to conduct an “administrative enquiry” which, although later undertaken, no sector of the fishing industry was ever contacted and the findings of this ‘enquiry’ were never made public.

Five years on and, despite numerous demands for the publication of this EU Audit report, it remains gathering dust in a DAFM filing cabinet – with seemingly every intention for it to never see the light of day.

The DAFM’s ‘administrative enquiry’ is now famously referred to in EU fishing industry circles as “the Irish crock of shit” as those that compiled the Ullage tables (details governing carrying capacity of fishing vessels) assessments for example simply could not add up and were reckless in their duties.

Basically Ireland’s ‘authorities’ made a bad situation worse due to their lack of due diligence and substandard interactions with the EU Commission - - all of which draws parallels with the present difficulties with the nitrates directive in the agriculture sector.

After pressure from Irish industry representatives, even the EU Fisheries Commission bailed out of the argument in responding to demands for publication of the Audit Report by stating that it is up to each EU Member State whether they publish such reports or not.

But it is also more than a suspicious coincidence that in the past few years the more the Irish fishing industry calls for publication of the report, the more the SFPA increase the level and number of ‘new’ regulations it imposes on the fishing industry here.

These include a refusal to continue to monitor fish volumes and species types at fish factories (where this has always been carried out) and, more recently, to insist on inspections and ‘random monitoring’ and weighing of gross volumes at the quayside - - while also introducing a regulation, which is not in any other EU Member State, that all Irish fish factories must be fitted with a new updated ‘flow scales’ system and also side chutes to take random samplings - - and that each factory must now have a vast bank of live feed CCTV systems fitted – all recorded and maintained for 31 days.

And, apparently being a law unto themselves with no minister or even Taoiseach with the backbone to challenge them, the SFPA are blackmailing the industry’s processors by withholding their permits to operate unless they accept any and all demands that the SFPA choose to impose on them.

The incompetence of the SFPA is even clear to see in the above paragraph - - refusing to any longer monitor volumes of catches at factories, but then insisting on very costly systems be installed by factory owners so that random sampling and weighing be carried out whenever it suits the SFPA to do so.

It has also been apparent to those in the fishing industry that there has always been a strong link between the operations of the senior officials at the DAFM and the SFPA - - a claim denied by Minister Charlie McConalogue when this was put to him by the Irish Fishing & Seafood Alliance (IFSA) last year - - - - until it later transpired that officials from both bodies have/had been meeting twice a week for the past three years in what were termed “budgetary talks”.

The SFPA could well turn out to be Ireland’s greatest failure - yet over the past three years they have ballooned the staff levels again with some reportedly not taking their posts until they get massive pay hikes.

Noticeable then that in the past twelve months the two senior officials at DAFM and one at the SFPA have since been ‘moved on’ but as one fisherman summed up “cows may come and cows may go but the bullshit goes on forever”….

And so, while the Mulcahy report is a prime example of a government trying to keep the cupboard skeletons locked up, the 2018 EU Audit report is equally as important and it’s publication is something that the Irish fishing industry and the thousands of people effected, will continue to fight for.

Ireland has had its fair share of ‘rogue arm of State’, so nothing should shock us any more.


A copy of this article has been sent to Transparency Ireland

************************************************************************ - 2/10/23

Six-year government stasis on Donegal planning corruption report borders on farcical

THEY GROW UP so fast, those government reports. One day they’re being commissioned, barely a gleam in a minister’s eye. Before you know it, years have passed, and it’s time to look back. Assess their impact, make sure all the time, money and effort was worth something.

In theory, that’s how it should work. But theory and practice have diverged wildly when it comes to the Mulcahy report, which was commissioned to examine alleged planning corruption in Donegal.

After being completed in July 2017, it remains unpublished.

The slightly strained birthday comparison is of relevance because Patrick Costello, a Green Party TD, has taken to celebrating the report’s ‘birthday’ every year in a kind of a ‘what else can I do here’ attempt to push for its release.

With planning issues having cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euros in tribunals, reports and investigations over the years, one would assume the government would be eager to deal with any allegations in the space quickly.

However, the Mulcahy report has now sat on the desk of two housing ministers, including incumbent Darragh O’Brien, for a combined six years. So, what is going on? First, some background.

The Mulcahy report stems from allegations made by Gerard Convie, formerly a senior planner in Donegal County Council during the 1980s and 1990s.

He claimed in the early 2000s there were a variety of serious problems, ranging to alleged potential corruption, in the council’s planning department. He compiled a list of 20 sample cases which was passed on to the government.

An internal review concluded there were no serious issues at the local authority and questioned Convie’s motives in making the allegations. Convie challenged the findings, taking a case to the High Court which resulted in the review being overturned and withdrawn, with an apologymade to Convie in 2013.

In 2015 the government commissioned Rory Mulcahy, a High Court judge who was a senior counsel at the time, to conduct another review into Convie’s allegations.Mulcahy submitted his report in June 2017, which is when the action – or lack thereof – starts.

Not much happened for several months, before the government looked for advice from the attorney general in late 2017.

The advice from a “comprehensive” set of queries was received in July 2018. At the time, the Department of Housing said the minister would “consider the matter further”.

The then-Fianna Fáil housing spokesman, Darragh O’Brien, called for an update from then-Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy in the interests of transparency.

Several years passed, and O’Brien replaced Murphy in the housing portfolio following the 2020 general election. Since then, tumbleweeds.

This is despite consistent calls for the report’s release from opposition politicians, groups such as Transparency International, some government members, such as Costello, and O’Brien’s own previous push for transparency.

Both the Department and Minister O’Brien have indicated they are reluctant to publish the report, normally citing “privacy” concerns.

This is a view which was upheld by the Information Commissioner when this reporter made a Freedom of Information request for the report’s release in 2020. While the FOI request was for a copy of the report with the personal information redacted, the commissioner’s office said that thiswould only apply to “particular sentences or occasional paragraphs”.

The Information Commissioner also indicated it did not want to be in a position of telling a minister what to do.

The argument is the Mulcahy report was a “scoping review” and did not make determinations about the truth of what happened at Donegal County Council. Because individuals are named in the report and their reputations could be damaged, their privacy should take precedence.

This is despite figures such as Costello pointing out that the right to privacy should not serve as a shield to potential wrongdoing.

The Department has now taken to issuing some variation of a stock response saying the report is being “considered” when questioned, with its statements barely changing since 2018.

It is reasonable to say it does not take years to decide on whether a completed report should be published or not.

For context, the final report from the Mother and Baby Home Commission, which ran to some 3,000 pages and concerns one of the most controversial issues in Irish public life of the last 50 years, was submitted to the government on 30 October 2020. It was published on 12 January 2021, a turnaround time of under four months but, at this point, it’s fair to question if the report will ever see the light of day.

Merits of publishing versus not

The current stasis favours no one. If the allegations are false, it is unfair toleave them hanging over Donegal County Council indefinitely.

If they are true, they have to be dealt with to ensure the planning system is working as it should be.

Holding any individuals to account for wrongdoing, already so often a difficult task in Ireland, will be made all the harder if the people involved in any incidents have long since retired.

If the Mulcahy report suggested wrongdoing by named individuals, but could not back this up with firm evidence and cannot be published, then that decision should just be made. It would be far from ideal.

Convie’s complaints at least merited investigating.

The Mulcahy report proving to be unpublishable would mean there would have to be a decision around what to do next about his allegations.

It would raise the prospect of calls for yet another review, around 20 years after Convie’s allegations first came to light. This would be unwelcome for the government, risking re-igniting an issue which currently has little public attention.

It would also raise questions about the point of the review in the first place. The Department has emphasised many times the Mulcahy report was just a ‘scoping review’ which did not aim to get to the truth of the matter.

Obvious question – Why?

The nature of Comvie’s allegations were known from the offset. It would have been clear that even a cursory investigation would have resulted in claims being made against named individuals.

So why commission a ‘scoping exercise’ if it would throw up such serious privacy concerns?

It seems now the government doesn’t really know what to do with the Mulcahy report. It clearly has deep misgivings about publishing it, but it also doesn’t want to be seen to scrap it.So instead, there’s nothing. While this may suit a cautious government, it doesn’t suit the public.

Planning issues

Even if the issue of Mulcahy report seems like one more for political anoraks, planning issues have been a thorn in the side of Irish public life for decades.

Some €150 million was spent on the Mahon tribunal alone, which examined suspect payments to politicians and local authority officials in connection with re-zonings in Dublin in the 1980s and 1990s.

Earlier this year Paul Hyde, the former deputy chair of An Bord Pleanála, was sentenced to two months in jail after failing to fully declare his interests in several properties.

These problems are expensive (for the taxpayer) to deal with, corrode trust in planning and unfortunately, are far from something which has been fully consigned to the past.

Allegations of planning corruption should be taken seriously. They should not be left to gather dust.

The government should have made a final call on the Mulcahy report years ago. Any further delays would be farcical – it’s decision time.

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