Honesty the best policy
Irish delegation praised by DG Mare director for its “honest and realistic” approach to seeking change and a fairer deal for Ireland
For the first time in over 20 years, this week saw a delegation representing all sectors of the Irish fishing and seafood sectors, including inshore, demersal, pelagic, processing, exporters and industry service companies (a total of six national industry groups, two co-ops and vessel skipper/owners) come to Brussels to meet those at the highest level of EU fishing policy and regulation.
And while this opportunity was made possible to the Irish industry by Sinn Fein’s MEP Chris MacManus and SF Spokesperson on Fisheries Deputy Padraig MacLoughlainn TD, these men were keen to point out that all they were doing was ‘opening the door’ for the Irish industry and then take a back seat while the delegation put Ireland’s case to the powers that be and, to their credit, that is exactly the format that took place.
Much background work and hours of strategy meetings amongst this delegation had taken place prior to the trip and, with general consent amongst the group that this was an important opportunity to maximise, it was decided that six speakers be selected, each to present a different topic in a short presentation which would then leave enough time in the two one-hour meetings for a response and reaction from both the Director of DG Mare Charlina Vitcheva and Director Directorate Fabrizio Donatella and, at the subsequent meeting, Pech Co-Ordinator Joao Pimenta Lopes.
The most important tactic agreed by the delegation was that nothing would be achieved by demanding immediate changes to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) or the BREXIT TCA - both of which have seen Ireland suffer greatly as a result - but to try to present workable solutions instead of problems and to offer the Commission possible ways of helping Ireland without any great changes to the system as it currently stands.
Cards on the table
For both meetings, Chris MacManus MEP made the introductions and opened with a summary of why this delegation was in Brussels and how important it was that these EU decision-makers took on board their concerns and proposals.
First speaker up was Cormac Burke, Chairman of the Irish Fishing & Seafood Alliance (IFSA), who set the tone with a presentation on how the people of the Irish fishing industry (inshore, demersal & pelagic, as well as the people of Ireland’s rural coastal communities) have become disheartened and disillusioned with the entire process of decades of poor representation from Irish officials at EU level and are always led to believe that everything is the fault of the EU when it is known that is not always the case. (See full transcript of this presentation below).
When questioned for proof or witness to such poor representation, the IFSA chief replied “history is my witness; 25 years of failed annual quota EU/Ireland deals is my witness; and Ireland’s mindset of going into such talks with a starting point of anything less than a 15% quota reduction is a success while other nations were going into the same talks with a starting point that anything less than a 15% increase was a failure - this is my witness”.
Second delegation speaker was Patrick Murphy of the IS&WFPO who laid a clear and reasonable proposal to the meeting that a course of action that lay open to the EU Commission for immediate support for Ireland was the issue of currently unused quota by other Member States in Irish waters.
Records over the past five years and longer show that several Member States with quotas in Irish waters are only utilising 70% of this allocation and that, under the terms of zonal attachment (which the EU Commission used in its negotiations with the U.K. in the BREXIT deal) such unused quota should be returned to the nation of who’s waters the quota is fished in.
This was an excellent example of ‘bringing solutions and not problems’ to the EU Commission and something that could be made a reality without any loss of current catch levels to any other Member State but that the combined small percentages of such unused quotas returned to Ireland could amount to a major difference to the Irish fleet.
Greencastle fisherman Gerard Kelly was next and in his presentation asked that urgent examination of the fact that the EU Commission does not allocate the Irish fleet any quotas in the EEZ’s of other Member States when such a huge proportion of the fish in Irish waters (over 80%) is allocated to the fleets of these same Member States.
The IFPO’s Aodh O’Donnell called for an EU Commission level review that the annual quota of fish allocated to the Irish fishing fleet under the CFP on a species-by-species basis be changed from the traditional ‘relative stability’ to the system of ‘zonal attachment’ in line with the wider principles of the CFP and the European Union in terms of reducing carbon footprint and of the economic and social linkage between those catching the fish and those actually closest to the fishing grounds.
The next topic was Atlantic bluefin tuna and Patrick Murphy again took the chair and requested examination into the opportunities to allocate Ireland a quota for BFT which are scientifically proven to be in abundance in the Irish EEZ and are in fact feeding in Irish waters and impacting Irish fish stocks.
He cited the fact that Norway recently used this science to show the rising stock biomass of BFT, recognised by ICCAT, to gain themselves a quota but then requested that they catch this quota in Irish waters and, with Japan sending tuna vessels all the way to fish in the international waters to the west of Ireland’s EEZ it is clear that this is yet another resource that exists in Irish waters that everyone, except Ireland, seems to be getting a benefit from.
Sinn Fein TD Deputy Padraig MacLochlainn then took on the important issue of ‘flags of convenience’ and asked the EU fisheries directors if they had examined the threat to EU food security from an increasing amount of quota being under the control of one or two major companies - - companies which at some stage could be taken over by non-EU interests (Russia for example) and how the current policy of relatively stability has permitted this to happen and how a policy of zonal attachment could reverse it.
IFPEA CEO Brendan Byrne then presented a strong case for Ireland in the pelagic sector and explained that, since 2014, Iceland and the Faroes get 15.6% of the global mackerel quota but that the present scientific advice clearly indicates that this share to these two countries is unjustified as mackerel stocks are no longer in their waters and that in order to catch this quota they must do so in international waters.
Therefore a case can be made, without the need for any change to the CFP, for the top slice to be reduced from 15.6% and that a further case exists that the mackerel quota taken back from Iceland and Faroes can be then redistributed to Western Waters as these are the areas which have been most affected by BREXIT. An added advantage of this approach means that as well as Ireland, the Member States of France, Germany, Netherlands and Denmark would also gain and therefore they would support this proposal at EU level.
Mr Byrne also referenced Ireland’s blue whiting minuscule quota in its own waters and stated that the EU currently has 41% of the global blue whiting quota but that 30% of this has been traded away to Norway under other EU deals, leaving Ireland with less than 30,000 tonnes of this quota in its own waters while Norway holds in excess of 250,000 tonnes in Irish waters - this must be reviewed and addressed urgently and that, once again, other Member States such as Netherlands, France and Denmark would also gain from such a renegotiation and redistribution of quota.
Finally, Greencastle owner/skippers Cara Rawdon and Frank McClenaghan addressed Ireland’s urgent concern over access to Rockall that is being denied to the Irish fleet (by Scottish authorities) since BREXIT.
They explained that the loss of this access has resulted in Irish vessels being seasonally displaced and having to operate on other grounds that would normally get a rest at certain times of the year and that this situation is now putting added pressure on the stocks on these grounds.
Response and reaction
At both the DG Mare and PECH meetings, the directors were quick to acknowledge that this Irish industry delegation had come with honest and ‘workable’ proposals and that an approach of demanding immediate changes to the CFP or BREXIT TCA agreement would have achieved nothing as such demands would have been politically and logistically not possible.
Responding to many of the topics raised, DG Director Charlina Vitcheva was too diplomatic to become embroiled in the national issue of the Irish industry believing it has very poor representation at EU levels from its officials but she clearly stated that, at this very moment in time, Ireland is “bottom of the table” and “the last in line” with regards submitting its application proposals for funding under the EMFAF scheme (previously known as the EMFF) and that time was running out and ALL other nations had by now submitted their applications.
While Madam Vitcheva was at pains to point out that DG Mare “do not make promises that we cannot guarantee”, she was nonetheless clearly impressed that this delegation which she recognised as “a full and comprehensive representation of the Irish fishing industry sectors” - had made clear and fair cases for consideration and, while not all of the proposals could be “repaired immediately” there were definite opportunities for some actions, particularly in relation to the matter of currently unused quota held by other Member States in Irish waters which could be returned to the host nation without any other nation loosing any of what it is currently catching.
She also made clear that despite what the Irish industry may believe, the EU Commission, DG Mare and PECH continue to be acutely aware of how Ireland has, and continues to, suffer as a result of BREXIT and they welcome any opportunities, such as the points raised during this meeting, that they can help Ireland if it within their power to do so.
Meanwhile PECH co-ordinator Joao Pimenta Lopes said that this Irish delegation was like “a breath of fresh air” as it was good to hear from those on the ground and at the grass roots level of the industry in Ireland.
Both Madem Vitcheva and Mr Lopes expressed an interest that a follow-up meeting is held with this same Irish delegation and that they would be willing to come to Ireland for this meeting and to see for themselves the current problems.
Those who predicted that this delegation would achieve nothing or not gain anything from DG Mare and PECH through this visit have certainly been left with egg on their faces.
What most impressed these EU decision-makers was the unity of so many different representatives speaking in frank and honest terms and also that the delegation did not ‘kick the door down’ and make unreasonable demands.
None of us expected to suddenly come home with bucketfuls of additional quota and a promise that everything would be fixed from this one visit, but I believe we exceeded our expectations in planting some seeds towards achieving not just ‘tea and sympathy’ from the EU but having the opportunity to provide these decision-makers with what they themselves described as “workable solutions’.
Praise must also to go to those Irish MEPs who participated at different stages of these meetings, including Chris MacManus, Colm Markey, Barry Andrews, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, as well as five other MEPs who sent representatives to attend and report back.
Finally, while the speakers / presenters Chris MacManus, Cormac Burke, Gerard Kelly, Patrick Murphy, Aodh O’Donnell, Brendan Byrne, Padraig MacLoughlainn, Cara Rawdon and Frank McClenaghan all played a vital part in the proceedings, it should not go unnoticed that the supporting role played by Oliver McBride, Tom Cunningham, Niall Connolly, Johnny Mythen, Conor McGuinness, Clare Callaghan, Rose Conway-Walsh, Stevie Coneely and Martin Coneely was equally, if not more important as they doubled the delegation’s efforts in off site conversations with MEPs and the media.
It’s a bit early for any celebrations just yet but there can be no denying that the foundations have been laid for a new relationship with the EU Commission - one based on understanding and a sense of justice.
Once again a massive thanks to Sinn Fein, Chris MacManus MEP, Padraig MacLoughlainn and their hard-working co-ordinating and communications team for making all of this possible.
One point worth noting is that DG Mare Director Vitcheva confirmed that CFP ‘review’ is in reality unlikely to see any major reform or changes of the existing CFP but that it will take the form of a report on the Policy - this is an exact repeat of what the EU Commissioner said during his visit to Ireland some months ago.
And yet Minister McConalogue continues (as recently as yesterday on Highland Radio) to tell the media and the general public that his priority for the Irish fishing industry is when the CFP review comes and that this will be Ireland’s opportunity to “get back something” and that he has even established a CFP reform group — a statement that not only shows how far he and his department are out of touch with reality but one that goes some way towards explaining why Ireland achieves so little at EU level when they aren’t even listening to what the EU Commission are clearly saying.
Members of DG Mare / Peche, thank you for taking the time to meet with us today.
I wish to take this opportunity to impress upon you how disheartened the people in the Irish seafood industry feel as they witness hundreds of years of tradition and the socio-economic heritage of rural coastal regions being eroded.
There’s an expression that the ‘rich get richer while the poor get poorer’ but in this case when the rich are taking the marine resource from those who actually own it, and leaving them with only crumbs to live on, then this system is in contradiction with the Commission’s long-held claim of “a level playing field”.
Whilst Ireland as a nation is proud to be an EU Member State, the Irish fishing industry is greatly disillusioned and has lost all faith that they will ever see fair play in the process of negotiations between the EU and Ireland and, while our own marine department officials would have us believe that the EU Commission and DG Mare is always to blame, it is clear to us that, through decades of failed efforts, laying this blame at the door of the Commission is a ploy often used to cover up the Irish officials’ own shortcomings and worse, their lack of will to support their own nation’s fishing industry compared to the officials of other nations who will fight to the last to defend their fishermen.
With Ireland’s inept officials constantly and intentionally misinterpreting EU Commission regulations so as to always result in more suffering for Ireland, they are knowingly encouraging a ‘them and us’ scenario between Ireland and the EU Fisheries Commission and, by doing so, are holding back any possible progress in future meaningful and potentially positive negotiations.
Questions need to be asked and the fact of such obvious misrepresentation over many years must be examined as to why the Irish fishing industry is being undermined from within and why Ireland continues to be denied fair representation at EU Commission level.
We, as a strong delegation of national Irish fishing and seafood bodies hope that this matter, along with the many other important issues that will be raised here today, will be given your strongest consideration.