Ruling by fooling!

It couldn’t be clearer as far as Fisheries Minister Charlie McConalogue is concerned; any changes to the fisheries part of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) which will result in a €43m loss to the Irish fishing industry would require a majority of Member States to agree under the EU’s qualified majority voting system. Ireland would have a mere 1% of the vote in such a procedure and we would be asking other Member States with much greater clout to give up existing quota shares. As the Minister knows this is a non-starter.

The EU Fisheries Commission and the Government expect the Irish seafood industry to ‘roll over’ and simply accept losses that could easily go as high as €85m. The Minister has set up a Seafood Sector Task Force which after a suitable period of huffing and puffing will start to focus on tie-up schemes and recommendations for decommissioning more boats.

For many in the industry this situation could be the end of the road. They will see their communities, their own life’s work and a lot of personal financial investment wiped out in one stroke of an EU pen. And then along will come an Irish fisheries minister to make them an offer he hopes they can’t refuse, “look, we’ve given away 30% of your annual income to the fishing boats of other nations in your waters, but here’s an EU cheque for you to scrap your boat and take early retirement”.

An anecdote illustrates one of the crucial difficulties faced by any campaign to defend let alone advance the interests of coastal communities in this or any other context.

Tim Pat Coogan, the historian and last editor of The Irish Press, in 2009 recounted a conversationthat he had with the then fisheries minister in the 1960s:

…a more fundamental cause goes back to that conversation I had with Brian Lenihan, the elder back in the 60s when Ireland was planning to enter the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then known. The conversation occurred during an interview I was conducting with the junior minister — that status should have given me a clue — on the prospects for developing the vast untapped fisheries potential of the Irish coastline. Brian, a pleasant man, interrupted me suddenly to ask “Tim Pat! Do you know how many whole time and part time farmers there are in this country?” I did not know exactly but he rattled off the answer correct to a decimal point (around a quarter million, as I remember). Then he asked me did I know how many whole time and part time fishermen there were in the country “including lobster men, currach men and the teacher who goes out in the summer night with a net after a few salmon?” Again I could not reply with certainty but Brian could again answer with pin point accuracy, something just over 9,000 as I recall. “That,” he continued, “would hardly elect one Fianna Fáil TD on the first count in a five seater. Now do you get me?”

Today there are around 16,000 people working in the industry. They are the heart of coastal communities. But they are seen as being a small sector of the economy. One of the key difficulties facing any attempt to unite and mobilise them to defend and advance their interests is their geographical spread throughout the country and a lack of the cohesion necessary to give them sufficient political clout to be a force to be reckoned with.

Historically there has been little to no links with the farming sector and a limited trade union involvement. Yet fisheries represent a valuable national resource.It has been estimated that if Ireland had remained outside the EU and had retained control of its own territorial waters the value of Irish fish stocks if they had been caught by Irish boats would have been significantly greater than the value of Ireland’s net receipts from the EU over the decades. Meanwhile the value of Spanish, French, Dutch-German, British and Lithuanian catches in Irish waters remains at close to €2 Billion per annum.

A recent reply to a parliamentary question appears to show that there was no oversight by the Minister of the Marine and his department officials of the final negotiations regarding the EU-UK Trade and Co-Operation Agreement deal finalised on 24th December last year.

Donegal independent TD Thomas Pringle requested from Minister McConalogue a record of any meetings between the Minister and his officials with Mr Barnier and his negotiating team during the latter stages which saw the Irish fishing industry ceding a disproportionate share of its quotas to the UK to secure the trade deal

In the written parliamentary question Deputy Pringle asked:

To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will submit a report to Dáil Éireann on the meetings between him and or his officials with Mr Barnier and or Mr Barnier’s negotiating team in connection with the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement negotiations, specifically on the issues of the Common Fisheries Policy and the Irish fishing industry, given the unfavourable outcome for Ireland’s fishing industry in the agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

In reply Minister McConalogue confirmed that his last meeting with Mr Barnier was on 27th November 2020 nearly a month before the deal was signed and following the widespread criticism of the deal there was no meeting to convey Irish fishermen’s concerns till 20th January 2021.This account reminds us who decided and approved the final deal on Christmas Eve and whether Minister McConalogue, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney or Taoiseach Micheál Martin were even aware of how much fish Ireland was surrendering. Indeed we are expected to believe that the timeline of the last minute “negotiations” involved an agreement to “proposals” at 11.00am on 24th December leading to a 1300 page agreement document translated into 27 languages by 4.00pm on the same day! A fairly blatant con if ever there was one!

The Minister reminded the Dáil that “any change to the existing system of quota allocations would require a majority of Member States to agree under the qualified majority voting system. This would require other Member States to give up existing quota shares. Any change to relative stability would involve a loss for some other Member States and therefore poses particular challenges in a qualified majority voting context”

Increasingly we must recognise that Ministers and members of the political class more generally do not see themselves as answerable to the Irish people but rather as managers acting on behalf of the EU in this country.

Ruling by fooling is increasingly the order of the day.

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