“Ní fhaigeann siad Cothrom na Féinne” – the betrayal of the Irish fishing sector
In his book An tOileán a Tréigeadh, Seán Sheáin Í Chearnaigh describes how himself and his father and other of the Blasket fishermen became involved in a cogaidh ar muir, a war at sea, with French lobster boats in the 1920s.
It was a brief war in which the islandmen interfered, ahem, with the French lines and pots found in their spots, but relations were restored through the long term relationship between themselves and Peter Trehiou from Phaimpol who shared his knowledge of the craft and bought lobsters from coastal communities. Trehiou’s son learned Irish so that they could trade directly with the Gaeltacht fishermen.
I was reminded of this by a report on RnaG which said there are no Irish boats landing fish for sale nationally at the quay in Daingean these days. They are mostly French and Spanish boats and are regarded with as much hostility as were their more adventurous forebears. More so in fact as now the foreign fleets are successfully displacing the natives, with the complicity of the Irish state.
Seán Sheáin did not like fishing, and anyone who has taken the four mile boat journey to An Blascaod Mór even on a day when the sea was allegedly “ina léinsigh” can only wonder at what form of mad courage possessed people to take to the waters in a small hide covered naomhóg, but as he said “Chaithimis dul ar an bhfarraige chun greim a chur inár mbéal.”
That necessity to put food in one’s mouth no longer exists, but there are still young men who wish to go down to the sea in boats, and make their living from fishing. One of them, Rónán Ó Conchubair, was interviewed on Radio na Gaeltachta’s Adhmhaidin on Wednesday and spoke of his disappointment at being made unemployed following the decommissioning of the Golden Feather.
Decommissioning is, as we know from other contexts, a nice word for giving up. It is an EU sponsored buy-out of Irish fishing skippers, their crews and vessels. The implications of this are illustrated by the fact that the decommissioning of whitefish boats will reduce that sector to one third of what it was just 15 years ago.
The Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO) has pointed out that, while the scheme is voluntary, the costs of putting to sea are an added pressure, along with what Ó Conchubair described as the discouraging attitude of the Irish state to our own fishermen who are hampered at every turn by red tape and regulations. In contrast, the French state actively supports its seafood sector which is valued at close to €2 billion annually.
Last year Aodh O’Donnell of the IFPO noted that Ireland which has a coastline of over 4000km is home to a fish processing sector that was valued in turnover at €622m in 2019; while Belgium which has a coastline of a mere 67km had a turnover of €961m. The Irish fishing sector has dropped from the third most important in the EU to tenth, overtaken by countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. The equivalent of Ireland producing more wine than Italy.
The IFPO claims that the record of the Irish state has been “one of lost and untapped opportunities for our fishing industry. They have NEVER sought or secured a fair share of EU quotas for fishing our own waters.” Something that is shamefully underlined by the fact that Irish fishermen only have 15% of the quota for Irish waters.
Not that the term “Irish” means any more in relation to the waters that surround the country, than does the promiscuous use of that term in other contexts. As Rónán Ó Conchubhair says, there is not such a thing as “Irish fishing waters,” they are all “European waters.”
He also described how a fleet of trucks waits on Cé an Daingean when the French and Spanish boats come in to take the catch to the Dublin market. Meanwhile, Paddy Ó Mathúna, the owner of the Meadowlands hotel in Tralee which hosted the Rose festival, was speaking earlier in the week about not being able to buy fish locally, and the consequences that has for availability and prices.
Economists sometimes refer to comparative advantage. It would be difficult to think of a greater example of a comparative advantage having been neglected, or even sabotaged, than the manner in which the Irish state since its foundation has treated what ought to be, and could still be with the proper focus, a multi billion catch and processing sector.
One that would also ensure as it also could have done over the past century the survival and indeed expansion and development of Gaeltacht fishing communities with all that would entail in terms of people being employed in secondary and tertiary businesses rather than having to migrate to find employment. As Máirtín Ó Cadhain and others pointed out, the Gaeltachts and the living language can only survive in viable communities.
Market liberals will argue that it is neither the state’s responsibility nor capability to ensure economic development, but in the case of the Irish fisheries, it has been the opposite case of the state actively intervening to make things worse. And to add insult to injury, surrendering sovereignty to a centralised EU proto state that for 50 years has been engineering the destruction of the Irish fishing sector. A comparative advantage for Ireland has been turned into a comparative advantage for “Europe.”
At least the islandmen of 100 years ago did not delude themselves that what was good for France and for French fishermen and consumers was good for them, or good for Ireland. On current trends, Ireland is set to become perhaps uniquely on the planet the only island nation that does not have its own domestic fishing fleet.