Thursday, 9 December 2021
Seafood Taskforce Final Report: Statements
I am not from a fishing community. I do not understand the complexities of the fishing sector and have never made any pretence that I do. However, I have been listening and all of us in this House need to listen to what is becoming an endangered species, the Irish fisherman. It is one of the travesties of an island nation that we do not have a world-class fishing fleet and world-class fishing industry that would inspire pride in all that it does.
In that context I read the seafood task force report. In completing its work, the task force described the seafood sector as being in the eye of the storm regarding the Brexit fallout. I thought it was a very apt description because for many sectors the impact of Brexit still looms on the horizon, but for our fishing communities and those in ancillary industries Brexit has become tangible very quickly. Through the agreement, the Irish fleet lost 15% of its annual quota. Prawn, monkfish and haddock were particularly impacted. As Deputy Mac Lochlainn very eloquently outlined, that does not even begin to tell the story of what our fishing communities will endure as a result of Brexit. It is not losing 15% of a fair catch; it is 15% of what has been a raw deal for our fishing communities for generations.
We need to be big enough and bold enough to say that our fishing communities were sold out upon joining the European Economic Community. They have been sold out by every Government since in their lax attitude to negotiations relating to fishing industry. That is been evident again in the trade and co-operation agreement. We recognise as much as, if not more than, anybody the need to secure a Brexit withdrawal agreement. However, the difficulties with the agreement are not necessarily over what was agreed with the British, which comes down to hard tacks, but over what was actually agreed at EU level. As Deputy Mac Lochlainn has said very clearly, that exposes the fundamental failure within the Common Fisheries Policy.
The task force report we are debating makes recommendations to spend €423 million. While we could debate at length the merits of each individual recommendation, it is unfair that every time we consider a review of this, the default proposal is always to decommission, get rid of boats and pay people off. A number of other identifiable options might be of assistance to our fishing community and we need to give thought to that.
Whenever I have met representatives of fishing organisations or seen them appear before the Oireachtas committee, they stress they do not want to be paid to give up their livelihood, something that is probably true of us all. They do not want to be paid off essentially. They want to be able to do what their families have been doing for generations. While some will accept a decommissioning deal if it is on offer, it is not because they want to abandon their sector but because they feel their Government has abandoned them. There is a fundamental problem in our approach to this issue. Historically, Irish Governments have accepted that fisheries was a battle they could not win. Too much of this has been left in the hands of a small number of officials. We have not had a political grasp on our fisheries sector for quite some time.
Last year, I asked the Minister if he agreed with me that this issue was so profound that we needed a Minister of State with responsibility for the marine. He argued that it is so important that it should be on the senior Minister's desk. With due respect to him, we have seen nothing that indicates he has given this the level of priority that it needs within government. As Opposition spokesperson on agriculture, food and the marine, I have seen that the areas relating to agriculture and food are so profound and important that it is impossible for me to stay fully on top of that and, at the same time, deal with what is potentially the most complex issue in any Department.
We have a Minister of State with responsibility for organics and forestry - matters that should be on the Minister's desk and over which he should have control. I would argue that it will be much more appropriate to have a Minister with direct responsibilities for fisheries. We can see the evidence in the contributions from Deputy Mac Lochlainn today. It makes a difference when somebody is working continually on the issue, knowing the issues inside out, meeting people from the sector every day, engaging with them and finding solutions. This results in the articulation of policies that will make a difference.
This is not a personal attack on the Minister. I do not think anybody has the capacity to deal with the complexities of issues in both farming and fishing. We need to have a Minister with political responsibility and somebody who has the political strength within government to bring this to the heart of government negotiations. We need fundamental reform of the Common Fisheries Policy which has absolutely failed Ireland.
However, here is the twist. I accept that if we go into a room where the Common Fisheries Policy alone is being discussed, we will not get agreement among other member states for the type of reform that is required. Most other member states have been laughing at Ireland's position since the 1970s. The only way we will get the type of reform needed is if this is brought into the heart of the European negotiations on every budget, every treaty change, every proposal on financial services or whatever the case may be. Ireland needs to set out as a political priority for our membership and within our membership of the European Union that if we want to see progress and developments at an EU level, fundamental to that must be a change to the fishing policy. That needs to be led by the Head of Government as well as by a collective move by the Government. The only way that can happen is if there is the political realisation that change needs to happen and I am not convinced that that realisation has yet happened.