SFPA try to bully their way through Joint Committee hearing but fail to impress legislators
As I made the long drive from the Oireachtas hearing at Leinster House back to Donegal last night I had plenty of time to digest the events that took place.
But even as I got to lay my head down in the wee hours, I still could not fully comprehend what I had just witnessed - had the SFPA more or less told the Committee members, who are part of this Government, the legislators of the SFPA, that they had no intention of changing their ways?
For those who sat through the three hours on Oireachtas tv I think you’ve already suffered enough and I wont impose on you my 12 foolscap pages of notes of exactly who said what, and for those who didn’t get to see it, I think you’d get more benefit from this summary rather than a full transcript - basically much waffle took place but important little nuggets of information came to the surface if one was alert enough to spot them.
The SFPA were represented by their chief, Mr Paschal Hayes, flanked on either side by Dr Michael O’Mahoney and Ms Olive Loughnane and, given that this hearing was scheduled to be a maximum of three hours, Mr Hayes greatly irritated the Committee members by using up 35 minutes in his opening address during which he seemed to just read out the BIM Seafood Report and then followed with the SFPA’s own website information on who the body is.
But it was when he reached the comment (regarding the pelagic vessels and processors) “we ask the Committee Members to consider the array of potential motivations of operators” that the Hearing had heard enough and an angry interjection by Deputy MacLochlainn SF TD forced the meeting’s chair to insist on a withdrawal of that statement as it casted unfounded allegations of irregularities by the operators.
However, the inclusion of that one line in the SFPA’s address was a poor choice by them as apparently, under the Hearing’s rules, if you issue your opening address, make it available to the TDs prior to the meeting (which they did) and then you are forced to retract a comment from that address, then the entire opening statement must be withdrawn — meaning that the SFPA have now managed to become the first Hearing witnesses in the history of this State to have their complete opening address struck from the record.
For me, the most important early impression that one can take from this Hearing is that, as the SFPA’s unholy trinity has now come to realise, it is clear that by now the members of this Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and Marine have done their homework and the excellent questions posed by Deputies Pearse Doherty SF, Padraig MacLochlainn SF, Michael Collins Ind, Thomas Pringle Ind, Sean Sherlock Lab. and Senator Tim Lombard FG displayed a deep understanding of the issues and, at times, took the SFPA by surprise.
It’s easy to see why Mr Hayes was selected for the position of SFPA chief - he is a more professional operator than his predecessor and spoke with confidence that presented a credible, even reasonable, man who carefully choose which questions to field himself and which to delegate to his rather cold spoken technical general Dr O’Mahoney.
However, the suave mask slipped on occasion and he came close to losing his composure several times - particularly on one occasion when asked about his appointment, who were the other candidates and who sat on the interviewing panel - he complained to the Chair as he deemed it internal ‘policy operational business’.
As a witness to all of this, I was intrigued that any time an awkward question was asked, he responded by saying that he “wasn’t comfortable” discussing this matter…. At which point I wanted one of the Committee Members to say “well good - you’re not supposed to be comfortable - we’re here to find out the truth”.
Indeed when the question was put “do you regret your statement in a letter that Derry is not part of Ireland”? no reply came from any of the SFPA representatives and a stoney silence hung in the air like a bad smell.
Personally I took offence at Mr Hayes’ jovial description of the SFPA’s relationship with the industry as “healthy friction” - for the many people who have suffered under the SFPA tyranny since their formation in 2006, this relationship is certainly not jovial nor heathy!
As for Ms Loughnane (who’s title is ‘Transformation Officer’ - and no one still knows what that’s supposed to mean - is it her job to transform the SFPA into one with a better image and if that is the case, then isn’t that appointment an admission that they do have a terrible image at present?) — the only thing she must have found in the desk in her new job was Susan Steele’s notes from the previous Hearing as she too attempted to portray a reasonable relationship with the industry
- but then, when Deputy Collins referred back to Ms Steele’s comments and asked “who in the industry do you have a good relationship with: IFPEA? IFSA? IFPO? IS&WFPO? IS&EFPO? Islands FPO? KFO? Any of the fishing co-operatives? she floundered and Mr Hayes interjected that this matter was not relevant to the weighing issue under discussion (and in my mind I thought “hang on a minute, you (Ms Loughnane brought up the topic of ‘good relationship and consultation with the industry” and now you want the question withdrawn as its not relevant???”)
But, inadvertently pulling the rug out from Ms Loughnane’s earlier statement, soon afterwards Mr Hayes made it quite obvious that he has been instilled with the same SFPA ever-present mindset when he said (several times in a steely voice) that “we are regulators, not negotiators..” - in other words that they will continue to present their planned regulations as a ‘fait accompli’ to the industry and at no point will ‘negotiations’ be taking place.
One of many important clarifications to come out of this meeting is that, when pressed on the matter by Deputy Pearse Doherty, Dr O’Mahoney admitted that thousands of previous landings had taken place over the years in Northern Ireland when the ‘first purchaser’ of the fish was based in the Republic of Ireland and that the monitoring / weighing of the fish is in that case the responsibility of the N.I. authorities and nothing to do with the SFPA — which is an admission in the clearest terms, that makes the SFPA’s recent revoking of weighing permits for two Killybegs’ processing companies completely without foundation or legal basis.
I could go on and on with this but suffice it to say that various comments and responses from this meeting will find their way into future arguments against the way the SFPA conducts itself.
The tragic part of all of this is that it has become obvious that the SFPA believes themselves to be much more powerful than they actually are and, with now fast losing the patience of a wide range of TDs cross different parties, the spotlight is only going to get stronger over the coming months.
This tragic self-adoration and belief that they are ‘untouchable’ by God or man, made me consider that this is almost a Donald Trump style of doing things:
“We’re gonna make a Control Plan… It’ll be a good Control Plan… The best ever Control Plan…. Everyone will love it…. (They dont love it??? Ok, tell them its a bad Control Plan but it came from the EU Commission… everyone hates the EU Commission…. Actually we should build a wall and make the EU Commission pay for it)”
And finally…. At the start of the Killybegs weighing fiasco, Deputy MacLochlainn SF described the goings-on as like something out of a Fr Ted episode —- well, at the hearing last night, as Paschal Hayes avoided answering one question after another as he considered them “operational policy” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Fr Ted episode where the bishop was coming to visit and Fr Jack was warned that if he was asked any questions to keep replying “that would be an ecumenical matter”.
It worked for Fr Jack but it is highly unlikely that the SFPA can continue to get away with ‘dodging bullets’ at hearings such as this one and under this ongoing regime, the Irish fishing industry may be ‘home of the brave’ but it is certainly not ‘land of the free’…..
*(By the way, Mr Hayes confirmed to the Committee Meeting that he, and the other two executive SFPA management board members (yet to be appointed), are selected and appointed by Minister for Agriculture & Marine….. yes, the same minister who has been insisting that he has absolutely nothing to do with the SFPA and that they are an “entirely independent body with no connection to him or his officials at DAFM…)