Minister receives stormy reception at Killybegs
“There is no wand I can wave which will make this go away.” – Minister McConalogue
By: Connie Duffy on behalf of The Skipper – Photos : Thomas Gallagher
Moves are to be made to have the senior Department of the Marine civil servants and officials from the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) meet with a representative group from the Killybegs fishing industry sectors next Monday in a bid to find common ground and solution to the landing crisis at the port.
For over a week now controversy has raged on land and sea at the fact SFPA imposed rules regarding landing tonnes of pelagic fish has seen Danish and Norwegian vessels do a U-turn at the port when confronted with these. They claim their catch, blue whiting, would be destroyed if they were weighed as demanded under the current rules.
It has been estimated that over €1 million has been lost to fish processing factories at the port and unless a solution is found, this will increase daily.
Indeed it has been noted that some of the vessels are travelling to Derry to unload their catch and then this is being transported back to Killybegs at both a cost to the producer and the climate.
In an effort to find a solution several locals in the industry decided to hold a meeting in the Tara Hotel, Killybegs on Saturday afternoon in a bid to kick start some mechanism that would salvage what was left of any future landings that could be heading their way.
The three-hour meeting was attended by over 300 people who heard presentations from the Killybegs Stevedores Ltd.; Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, (IFPEA); Irish Fish Producers Organisation, (IFPO); Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance, (IFSA); Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, (KFO) and the Killybegs Harbour Development Group (KHDG) concerning the impact of the latest crisis on the town and industry locally.
Four of the five Donegal TDs also attended namely Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Pearse Doherty (SF); Thomas Pringle (Ind) and a surprise visit by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue who arrived 23 minutes late but was praised in some quarters for being brave enough to turn up.
Apologies were received from Joe McHugh TD who had a prior commitment and could not attend.
Midlands–North-West MEP Colm Markey (FG) and local councillors, Barry Sweeny, Tom Conaghan, Noel Jordan, and Niamh Kennedy were also present.
Locals direct anger at SFPA and Dept of the Marine
The meeting was dominated by the fallout from the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority’s (SFPA) imposition of new controls for weighing fish catches and their effect on the processing, engineering, business, and reputation of the Donegal south-west port.
Ann Conaghan from the Killybegs Community Council addressed the gathering and outlined in no uncertain terms the devastation this latest crisis presented for all sectors of the local economy.
“The actions are having a human cost which needs to be highlighted. Families and individuals who already lost income are facing uncertainty. Jobs for our young people and the social fabric of our fishing communities are also under threat.”
She also called the SPFA’s actions “unreasonable”.
Manus Boyle from Killybegs Stevedores Ltd., said the ordinary man in the street could not understand what the problem was. He spoke of the “massive loss” already incurred by his own company and his staff.
“All this comes down to work, jobs, and people, we need a control plan going forward that works for everybody,” he said.
Chairman of the IFSA, Cormac Burke said this latest crisis had once again exposed the failings of the political and administrative management of Ireland’s fishing sector. He claimed Killybegs and the fishing industry nationwide were slowly being starved to death and this was being done by a select few powerful civil servants within the Department of Marine and this ‘softly softly’ approach when dealing with these officials had to stop.
Chief executive of IFPEA, Brendan Byrne outlined the history of the control plan with the SFPA and how they had implemented rules and regulations “in good faith” that were not found in any other country in Europe.
He claimed it was a lie to say these rules were equally applied throughout the EU and as a result, the preservation of the quality of the catch landed in Killybegs was endangered.
He outlined the options offered by an interim control plan for landings saying had it been left in place they would not be in the position they were in now and an unannounced change of policy changed everything.
“Sooner or later we as a fishing industry are going to have to call out where the real problems are. We are here because of poor leadership at the permanent government for the last 20 years or more. Our Department of the Marine is anti-fishing and has been allowed to perform in that way, unchallenged at the political level or indeed by the industry. We’re lacking leadership, we’ve been putting up with far too much and we are far too quiet,” he claimed.
He added they needed an Oireachtas committee to shine a light on the department, reform it and chart a future of the industry, and the minister, who was also a Donegal TD, needed to level the playing field with more support.
Aodh O’Donnell of the IFPO predicted if the fish weighing problem, which he said was not fit for purpose, was not sorted out soon, a large number of jobs would be lost. A meaningful solution involving all parties was what was needed.
Ciaran Doherty of the KFO said foreign vessels came to Killybegs not just to land fish but to avail of the world-class engineering, electrical, nets, repairs, and other fishery-related business services. Now, this was in jeopardy because of this landing fiasco, he said.
He said he recently landed his catch in Denmark to avoid the hassle created by the SFPA in Killybegs and other vessels would start doing the same. They needed a derogation in relation to landings if they wanted to keep vessels coming and maintain the quality that was demanded in Japanese and Asian markets.
He called for the publication of a 2018 EU audit of controls of Ireland’s pelagic fisheries which identified alleged irregularities including the alleged manipulation of weighing systems in some instances.
It’s like the EU keeping the boot on our throat, it’s a form of bullying. All we want is fairness. The easiest solution would be to get the EU to accept the pier side weighing unit to be put back, minister you can find the solution to this,” he claimed.
The meeting was told by several speakers that the SPFA had claimed that these irregularities were subsequently confirmed in an administrative inquiry, something all the fishermen said they needed to see the proof for a claim.
Lee Mooney of the Killybegs Harbour Development Group said the turning away of vessels in recent days not only affected fish factories, it severely affected the engineering sector, net-making sector, the shops, pubs, and the whole community.
“There would be nothing in Killybegs without fishing. I’m asking the minister and the government representatives to fight for the Irish fishing sector. It’s not just the pelagic sector, the whitefish fleet is also being hammered and without the whitefish sector a lot of jobs will be gone in this town,” he said.
Problems outlined at the meeting
A number of speakers from the floor addressed the problems as they saw them and placed the minister front and centre of their demands.
Topics raised included bringing the department and the SFPA to court on the issues raised; taking over a factory for a day and weigh the product as it went through the system; the need for foreign vessels to come in to provide local work for a number of companies; the lack of action on fisheries in the Dáil; the U-turn from the minister’s 2011 position on reform and new management in the Department of the Marine; the lack of adequate response by the government to the Brexit negotiations; the change in the department or SFPA’s alleged inflexible attitude to the weighing system and it’s effect on employment; the lack of respect felt by fishermen, their industry, crew members, fairness and equality that was afforded to other European nations; why reforms in the department never happened; the financial difficulties workers were now experiencing due to unreliable periods of work; the damage done as a result of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA); penalty points; lack of confidence in senior civil servants in the department and the minister; using the location of the fish processing factories that are not situated on the harbour as an excuse to penalise them; quota restrictions which now meant a reliance on Norwegian and Danish vessels to provide work in the processing factories in Killybegs and the failure of the department to engage in negotiations with fish factory owners.
Minister accused of disrespecting Killybegs
Minister Charlie McConalogue faced a torrid time when he addressed the Killybegs meeting. He was even accused of disrespecting the people of Killybegs.
He outlined the history and what was due to happen with the new control plan expected to come into force at the start of May. He also detailed his own role and the many interactions he has had at department, national, and EU levels since he took office in September 2020.
He outlined the legal situation in relation to the weighing of fish, the legal establishment of the SFPA, its enforcement role, and the European Commission’s withdrawal of the Irish control plan due to a lack of confidence in its monitoring system.
He said the challenge they were now facing went back to an audit by the European Commission in 2018 into the controls the SFPA had for weighing fish and ensuring these controls nationally were sufficient and appropriate.
“They weren’t satisfied with the control measures that were in place so following on from the audit the Commission initiated an administrative inquiry in 2019. Coming out of that the Commission decided it was not satisfied that the control measures the SFPA had in place were sufficient and appropriate to prevent inaccurate reporting of weighing.”
He added in April last year the Commission revoked Ireland’s control plan because of the results of the audit and administrative inquiry and within the plan the derogation Ireland had to be able to weigh in factories as opposed to pier side.
He explained a lot of Ireland’s processing factories were outside the harbour footprint which was not the case in most European countries.
“So last year that removed the legal capacity for us to be able to remove the fish from the pier side to factories was gone. That had massive implications, particularly in Killybegs and right across the country. It meant every fish that was landed in any small port or harbour had to be weighed at pier side. That massively inconvenienced every single fisherman in this county in a very, very significant way.
Minister McConalogue outlined his and the SFPA efforts with the Commission to re-establish a control plan. He said it was going to be a major issue if they did not have a control plan in place by January 1 this year at the start of the pelagic season.
After much consultation, they managed to have a temporary control plan in place. It only lasts until the end of April he said and a key requirement for 5% of pelagic landings to be weighed at the pier side by non-industry owned or operated machinery. The onus to do this was on the SFPA.
“This means out of the 600 pelagic landings that happen across the course of a year, 5% or 30 of those will have to be conducted on non-industry owned or operated pier-side weighing. If the temporary control plan is not renewed or there is no permanent one in place to replace it, the 600 pelagic lands or the almost 20,000 whitefish landings that happen across the State in any one year, would have to be weighed at pier side rather than in factories or in coops.”
He added if the SFPA were not to comply with the EU control plan it would be a particularly challenging scenario.
Minister McConalogue said he had to address the realities and this was the backdrop that the SFPA was operating in as well. Work was ongoing to put a new control plan in place but as minister, he was legally separated from having any role in that.
“There is no wand I can wave which will make this go away.”
Some speakers accused the minister of dodging issues and going around in circles when addressing issues around the SFPA and the control plan but he pointed out that being legally independent of the SFPA he could not get involved.
When presented with different control plans in Holland for example the minister said all he could do was tell them what the legal position was for Ireland by the European Commission.
Asked whether he had confidence in two particular senior members of his department, Minister McConalogue said he had every confidence they were working for the betterment of the industry. This drew howls of derision from the attendance.
He said in relation to promises made in 2011 he had issued two manifesto documents in 2020 and 2016 and those were the ones he was seeking to implement.
“If the best anyone can do is point to a comment I made in 2011, 11 years ago, and ignore the manifestos I have put together since that and the assessment and the growth in the knowledge I have had personally relating to the industry and ignore any commitments or policies I put together since that then maybe you could go off and apply that to everyone.”
He acknowledged Brexit had been damaging to the fishing sector losing 15% of their fish between now and 2026 and pointed out how he had brought together all the key stakeholders in this area and established the Sea Fisheries Task Force to look at a way to see how to address this and invest at a national level to maximise the potential of this sector.
Chairman of the IFSA, Mr Burke accused the minister of disrespecting the people at the meeting and the people of Killybegs
“How dare you take this opportunity and use it for propaganda saying ‘I’ve done this and I’ve done that. This is not a political rally. We are talking about the livelihoods of these people so instead of talking about all the things you’ve done and you are doing, please address the issues of the things you are not doing, such as challenging your own civil service,” he said.
Mr Byrne of the IFPEA accused the minister of having too many gaps in his presentation, particularly the period September 2020 to April 2021 when no plans had been revoked and no consultation had been made with any industry representative about a draft control plan.
He added he did not feel the minister understood the impact of the effect of monitoring and how it had a massive effect on any vessel owner.
He challenged the minister to point out where the non-industry owned or operated monitoring devices in EU legislation because he could not find any reference to these in the EU fisheries regulations. He accused him of backing Ireland into a corner in this regard by volunteering this path.
The minister said it was going to be required in order to get a control plan in place and take the finding of the audit and inquiry into consideration.
The KFO’s Mr Doherty said they needed to see the EU audit.
“Until we see it and are able to defend ourselves, we are nowhere.”
He added he was concerned that monitoring work done on weighing in the past might be cancelled out if these are not recognised in the future so it was vital that the pier side weighing unit was part of any new control plan.
Donegal’s TDs lay it on the line for the minister
Three of the Donegal TDs that attended the meeting did not hold back in their criticism of the minister or his department
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Fisheries opened his contribution by telling the meeting he had told Minister McConalogue both in the Dáil and in committees that the people who run the Department of the Marine were despised by fishermen up and down the country.
“We have a department against the marine, not a department for the marine. Kenny Ward took me here last year to see Blue whiting being landed. He took me up to his factory and showed me ten CCTV cameras on his weighing scales. These were going directly to the SFPA office 24 hours for 31 days. What industry has cameras on them 24 hours a day?
“What the hell do you need for evidence of what is being landed in Killybegs. This is mad stuff. It’s not people in Brussels that are sabotaging our industry, it’s Irish men that are sabotaging our industry in Killybegs.”
He claimed the EU draft audit was leaked to the Irish media essentially saying the industry was overfishing by hundreds of thousands of tonnes and tens of millions would have to be paid back.
“This is a report that nobody in the industry has got. If you are in a court of law and you are accused of something, you have to see the evidence in order to defend yourself yet the industry, the men and women in this room are being accused pretty much of criminality with no evidence being produced and your name being slurred at national level.
“Somebody in the department of the SFPA leaked those reports. This is Irish people sabotaging Irish people – minister you have to intervene here, sit these people down and say this has to stop,” he said.
Deputy Mac Lochlainn suggested the minister should take control of the flow scales weighing, give it to the SFPA, say it’s not industry owned, and use it at the piers.
Independent TD, Thomas Pringle said the solution was to let the department, the SFPA, or a private company take over the running of the weighing machine so it would be non-industry owned or operated and that would solve the problem straight away.
He said after sitting on the Fisheries Committee in the Dáil for a few years he was dismayed to hear officials always refer to European waters, never Irish waters.
“I think that ultimately is th4 crux of the problem. The department sees itself as responsible for looking after European waters; it doesn’t see itself as looking after Irish waters. That is a problem that has to be addressed by the political system,” he said.
He pointed out that as the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was currently being reviewed for the first time in 30 years now was the time to get a solution for the Irish fishing industry.
“If we don’t there won’t be an Irish fishing industry the next time it’s reviewed. We need a fair review of the CFP but if the government doesn’t accept we have a problem and the department of the marine doesn’t accept we have a problem, they are going to Europe to fight on our behalf, but if they don’t accept we have a problem, we’re finished anyway.
“We have to fight. We might not win but at least we will have fought for it and we won’t sit back and rely on Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Sinn Féin, or independents – you have to do it yourselves, you have to stand and fight,” he said.
Deputy Pearse Doherty said the fact another fishing vessel had been turned away that day (Saturday) was absolutely disgraceful.
“Thousands of Blue whiting should be landed here; thousands of euros should be here with jobs for factories and service companies and boats buying from the local economy.
He said he had talked with Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, about the problem and the support being given to different industries here, particularly the service industries, and the fact it was now all at risk
“The reputational damage that’s being done to this harbour hour by hour is immense. There has to be an emergency meeting to see whether Killybegs is a cold place for fishermen to land their catch.”
He added while he was delighted to see Minister McConalogue at the meeting, this wasn’t the day for lectures, why or what happened, or covering your own back, it was a day for solutions
“We shouldn’t be leaving here without an understanding of how we are going forward. Charlie, with respect to you, all I heard was you trying to explain your position. The reality is there are people ready to work, ready to process those fish but they are away back out to Norway.
“We can talk about civil servants but there’s only one person in charge of the Department of the Marine and that is Charlie McConalogue. He is right, the SFPA is legally independent and separate from the department but what he didn’t tell you is that as minister he has the right to give written policy direction to the SFPA. It has to be in writing and it has to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas and I would ask Charlie to take on that.”
He added they were now at a crisis point. They needed the SFPA, the senior civil servants, and the minister sitting around the table with the people that called the meeting in Killybegs in an emergency session to find a solution.
He told Minister McConalogue he had a unique opportunity to pull all these people together and find a solution.
“I appeal to you to call this meeting on Monday. I know you will be here (Killybegs) then.
Minister McConalogue said he acknowledged the great strides that had been made in Killybegs in all sectors involved in the industry.
“I will be doing all I can to support the sector There is that legal differential between the operational side and myself on the policy side but I certainly think I would be very constructive for a representative group from the meeting here today to engage with the SFPA and have a discussion, bringing forward the concerns you have raised here and discussing with them.
“I will certainly engage with them and ask them to meet but I have to be separate from that. Trust and working together is essential,” he said.