Thursday, 3 June 2021
Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
Michael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
The Government is bringing this Bill forward having once again undergone no prior public consultation with no prelegislative scrutiny or regulatory impact analysis accompanying this Bill. At this stage I am not one bit surprised, however. We have seen first hand the acts of the Taoiseach in the Dáil when I questioned him on the incidents that happened off the coast of Castletownbere last Friday morning. I rang the Taoiseach's office in Dublin and I was told I would be put through to the Cork office as this was a Cork issue. I left a message and none bothered to call me back. I also emailed the Taoiseach that morning - and thankfully I did because he is claiming that I never contacted him but we have proof - and asked him to intervene in this act of piracy off our waters. According to the Taoiseach I never made a call and according to him I made other calls which I never made. I have asked the Ceann Comhairle to clarify this for the record of the Dáil.
Fishing, our maritime and our seas have been left at the bottom of the pile by successive Governments. Like many speakers before me have said, the living proof of that can be seen here. We are in the dying minutes of this week's Dáil programme and this discussion on fishing has been put at the last part of the agenda. I would love to know why it has always been the poor relation of Irish politics. Why was there not more prelegislative scrutiny of this Bill?
Scrooge must have been playing a part in Brexit negotiations during Christmas as our pelagic fishing fleet lost 25% of its quota. Mind; this was at Christmas, just in time to put the knife further into the families of the fishermen. Happy Christmas indeed. Then we find out through parliamentary questions that fishing was not even discussed in the meetings during the Brexit negotiations. What the hell was this Government doing? Why was it asleep at the wheel and letting the EU's Michel Barnier steer the boat? Fair play to him; he steered it perfectly for the French and the other European countries at a massive expense to the Irish fishermen and the Irish fishing fleet.
I can remember coming into the Dáil and pleading with the Taoiseach to force involvement in this issue. I know we have had successive Governments in this country that have not wanted to insult our fellow Europeans and we tend to lie down and bow to every request they put before us. It is a case that if they ask us to jump we ask how high, especially with fisheries. I pleaded with the Taoiseach to force involvement in the discussions on the waters and the seas in Brexit and he said "No" and that Michel Barnier would look after us. We know now what happened. It was a disaster. I spoke to people out in Europe and we are the laughing stock of Europe. Imagine the Irish Government is the laughing stock of Europe on Irish fisheries because they know we are the whipping boys and that if anything is to be lost the boys in Ireland will take the hit. They think the Government believes that our fishermen will lie down and take this but the Minister of State should believe me, the Government is totally underestimating them.
To top it all off, we have this weighing debacle. The SFPA knew about the weighing crisis in December 2020 and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine also knew and they never consulted with the fishing industry in the four months before announcing the crisis. Clearly the views of the sector mean little to this Government. If they did, the Government would have sought those views prior to making any decision on three destructive policies it has inflicted.
To add insult to injury, during my questioning of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, he said that he knew the EU officials were seeking changes to the weighing of fish since last December. However, instead of providing a copy of this audit report to the sector into tangible discussions, the report was mysteriously leaked to the media, which facilitated the SFPA to enforce a harsh new pier-based weighing system at 5 p.m. on 16 April last with one hour prior notice. Now the SFPA comes before our committee and says it is always in full consultation with the industry, that it has a great relationship with the industry and that it is in constant contact. Then we find out what we were not told then, that is, that it knew of such a crisis that hits inshore fishermen and pelagic fishermen hard and brutally and has huge impacts on the quality of our fantastic Irish fish. The SFPA and the Minister knew there was a crisis in December and instead of sitting down with the industry and working it, they hid that information. Why did they do that? I am on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I have stated my view that we have been misled because if the SFPA was working with the industry why is that on 16 April at 4 p.m. the industry did not know there was a fishing weighing crisis and by 5 p.m. there was a massive crisis. As I said, the SFPA knew this for months and so did the Minister and they hid it from fishermen. What were they afraid of and why did they not debate it? We continuously refuse to debate fishing as a serious issue in this Dáil. I continue to ask in every form and way I can to make sure we carry out a full investigation into each crisis as it arises and have a full debate on who is responsible. This has been refused to me until this discussion.
The new regime involves a closed circuit television system linked into the office of the SFPA and potentially shared with EU officials. This is more Orwellian practice and creates a new "Big Brother is watching" experience, despite the Irish sector having been the most regulated in the EU prior to this change. From what I can gather, one infringement was discovered. If that was related back to driving on our roads it would be a case that one motorist is caught so everybody has to be penalised. That is insanity but it is fishing and there is a game on. It is our maritime and our way of life and there is a trick on here to force the fishermen into decommissioning and taking whatever they get. Anything to get the hell out of the waters and hand it over. That is the game and those are the facts. No one can stand up here and deny that.
The Minister's approach is appalling, keeping in with the Government's agenda to tarnish and criminalise fishers. It shows an atrocious level of contempt for the entire sector. The Minister provided no consultation, transparency or even a transitionary arrangement. Any Minister who ploughs ahead with a raft of intimidating new arrangements which are procedurally flawed, utterly unworkable, negatively impacting the quality of fish and criminalising fishers on a 51% balance of probability is no friend or ally of the sector.
I would like to speak about the peaceful protest that the fishermen of west Cork and Ireland took part in last week when they came into the Port of Cork.
The scenes on the way into the port showed unity. Those fishermen have had enough. It was a peaceful demonstration. They handed a letter into the Taoiseach's office where some of the children were given lollipops. The fishermen need more than lollipops. They need results. The Irish fishing sector needs results and protection and it has not got them.
The families of those fishermen have had enough. It was great to see the families there during the protest. It is time for this Government to stop bowing down to the EU and to start standing up for fishing communities in Ireland. It is time the Government stood side by side with our countrymen and put this country first.
There was no pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill and that is further proof of how we have neglected our fishing industry. I sat before the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party during negotiations for Government. They were looking for the vote of the Rural Independent Group and had reasonable discussions with us. I had only one red line. We need to protect our maritime industry and my only red line issue was that we have a senior Minister for fisheries, even though there are many other issues in west Cork. That request to appoint a senior Minister was refused to the people of Ireland. We can now see the exact results of that refusal. Our Taoiseach and his predecessor have no interest in appointing a senior Minister for one of the richest resources in this country and that proves they have sold out the industry behind the people's backs. It is no longer behind their backs. They are well aware they have been sold out. They know they have been sold out for decades but they are starting to fight back and they will be heading to the capital very soon. That fight will be peaceful but strong and I will support them every inch of the way.
We had five Ministers for agriculture and the marine in a little over 12 months. Those were Deputies Creed, Calleary, Cowen and McConalogue, and the Taoiseach acted as Minister during that time. The Taoiseach was acting Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine for a few weeks and the first thing he applied was penalty points. Well done, Taoiseach. We pat him on the back. Imagine a system that would mean if one got penalty points on one's driver licence tonight, even though one could prove one was sitting in the Dáil, those points would not be removed. That is the situation with these penalty points. It is a shocking, unfair system that the Taoiseach of this country put in place with a flick of his pen and without any consultation with anybody. He says Europe called and when Europe called, the Taoiseach answered.
I spoke earlier about the SFPA and it must be answerable for many of the issues that are going on at the moment. I spoke at great length about the weighing crisis of which the SFPA had knowledge. Why did it not disclose that to the industry, get talking and try to get the situation resolved before it became a crisis? I am worried about inshore fishermen and their situation because they must weigh every box of fish, empty it and weigh it again. It is nonsensical rubbish. I do not know how this situation is going to affect the pelagic fishermen.
The situation with Brexit has stumbled on. I mentioned Michel Barnier and the weighing crisis. It is just one incident on top of another. There was a ramming incident in Castletownbere last Friday. The frustration is palpable. There is no protection of the Irish fishermen in Irish waters. That day is well and truly gone. The protection is for foreign vessels. People on Irish vessels are being arrested if they commit any small infringement. There is no interest in protecting the Irish fishermen.
The lack of interest has been demonstrated today by the fact that speaking slots were available but Government representatives have failed to turn up and fill them. In west Cork, representatives are giving out that there is no time to debate the issue. There is time to debate this maritime Bill this evening and Government representatives have not turned up to use those slots. That says it all.
I have grave reservations about a Bill that has not received proper pre-legislative scrutiny. I will seriously consider voting against the legislation until we at least accept the issues and put this issue at the forefront and not at the back, which is how all fishing issues have been treated in recent years.
As I said, there is a massive resource in our seas. We have a brilliant fishing fleet out there. The fishermen want to bring beautiful food from Irish waters to the world. It can be done. All that is needed is the investment of time and the interest of our Government. We should not be pushing things down the road. I mentioned the ramming incident and, in fairness, the Ceann Comhairle is allowing a debate on that matter later tonight. However, when I have brought that issue to the Dáil, the Taoiseach has done everything to discredit me instead of talking about the issue. He is trying to run away and take away from the story. The real reason for that is he knows his Government has failed Irish fishermen. He is embarrassed. He is furious when I mention the issue but this is an honest forum in which to do so. It is the only forum I can raise the issue. I do not know if there was anything in the national media about the massive peaceful protest last week. Somebody said they saw a small corner of the protest shown on RTÉ. It has its own agenda and that is fine. I will do everything in my power to keep the agenda of fishermen and fisherwomen before the Dáil at every available opportunity. There is a weighing crisis, a penalty points crisis and the Brexit issue and I will bring those issues before the Dáil at every available opportunity.