Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 27 March 2001 (continued)

Individuals as well as fishing organisations have made written submissions to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and to the Minister outlining what is needed.

For example, throughout the period when boats are required to remain in port, all vessels affected - that is, each fishing boat - should receive a weekly subsidy. A percentage of that financial assistance should be used to compensate the fish-selling companies, the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority and the producer organisations for the loss in income that would be inevitable should vessels be forced to tie up.

The financial assistance would allow trawler owners to maintain the repayment of bank loans, insurance and equipment hire costs, as well as provide crew members with a weekly wage. It is vitally important that the crew members also be looked after through that package, because they are the backbone of the fishing industry.

During this period the fleet will be restricted to port. Training schemes should be developed and run when the fishery is closed. The Minister and ourselves are well aware of a training scheme that the Republic of Ireland runs for their fishermen. Indeed, a substantial sum of money is spent on that training, and we ask the Minister to respond today and assure us that a similar training scheme could be introduced here. The implementation of such measures would go a long way towards providing assistance for the recovery of fish stocks and would prevent the white fish fleet diverting to working with nephrops, thus avoiding any further pressure on those quotas. That would also encourage crew members to stay with the fleet. Many are already voting with their feet and leaving the industry. We are aware of that, and we cannot let it continue.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Does the Member agree that the proposals that he outlines are not options but are absolutely necessary? If they are not implemented, we face mass unemployment along the peninsula.

Mr Shannon:

That is a point that I ask the Minister to take on board. Those proposals are essential; they are not just ideas pulled out of a hat in the hope that she will consider perhaps one of the six. We ask the Minister to implement all six. If those long-term problems that the fishing industry has had to face are to be addressed, there is only one route that the Government can take. It is essential that whatever solution is found balances the need to maintain fish stocks with the continuing viability of a Northern Ireland fishing fleet - a fleet that wants to fish and that has the right to fish.

I suggest that the following action be taken to cement and bolster the Northern Ireland fishing industry. We must strive to ensure that the weight and importance of the fishing industry are elevated within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. For too long the fishing industry has been the poor relation in this family. A fishing villages initiative programme should be developed and implemented that would give control of inshore fishing to local fishermen. We must ensure that sufficient funds are made available in order to both maintain and retain the Northern Ireland fishing fleet and its associated industries such as the processing and sale of fish produce.

Those currently involved with the fishing industry are crying out for acknowledgement and assistance in their struggle to keep their heads above water. Although attention to the foot-and-mouth disease crisis is essential, the Minister has failed to act in the same quick and decisive manner in relation to the fishing crisis. She must make a greater effort for the sake of the communities that we represent. Some of those people affected are here today. They are held together through fishing; for many of them it is not only a job, it is a way of life.

The crisis is not a recent occurrence, it is one that has been simmering for years. The fishermen need someone to fight their corner, as they are getting nowhere on their own. We ask the Minister to fight their corner; we ask her to make that commitment today. Doors are already slamming in their face everywhere they go, and that is frustrating. If one looks at the evidence, one cannot blame fishermen for asking whether, once again, the fishing industry in Northern Ireland is being considered expendable. I ask the Minister - indeed, I demand of the Minister - that she prove me wrong.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

In view of the number of Members who wish to speak in this debate, I must ask participants to limit their contributions to nine minutes.

The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley):

As long ago as December 1999 - well over a year ago - the fishermen's representatives met with my Committee to tell us of the difficulties they faced. We have met with them again on a number of occasions since that day. We have also had meetings with the Minister and with her officials, and we have written to the Minister to seek action to relieve the real financial catastrophe faced by those men and by the entire fishing industry.

I must remind the House that, through compulsory curtailment of their activities, fishermen are being deprived of their means of earning a living. That is what this is about. It is putting them out of the position in which they can earn a living and support their families. That is the crisis we face today - men who have the ability and the wherewithal to make a living through fishing are being pushed out. The country is telling them that they cannot do it. They are being forced to give up the major part of their income without any compensation whatsoever.

It is surely not right that a man can be stopped from doing his legitimate work. What are we stopping them for? This country had the greatest asset of any country in Europe - the fishing grounds. What has it done? It has thrown them away. I am from Northern Ireland, but in Europe today Spaniards can get up and tell me of their right to fish my fishing grounds. Europe is dictating a policy to put the people of this part of the United Kingdom out of business altogether. It is not as if those men can find some other use for their fishing boats. One of their representatives put it to our Committee. He said:

"We cannot diversify by turning our fishing boats into golf courses."

They cannot diversify - they are just out on the street.

The boat owners still have to pay their bills, of course. They cannot let their boats rot away in port. Their crew members need money to live on. Could any Member of the House exist on £54 a week? We are asking those fishermen to do that. Although we have been assured that a decommissioning scheme is a priority, by the time it appears it may be too late for many of them. They will already be out of business. Remember that in any decommissioning scheme the Government are going to claw back all the money that fishermen ever received in grants. Therefore, even if it were a good decommissioning scheme, fishermen would probably have nothing left at the end.

Financial aid is needed immediately. Why can we not have a scheme that would compensate the owners adequately for tying their boats up for this short period? Why can we not have that? And why can we not find ways and means to help our fishing industry when other countries can? Article 16 of EU Regulation 2792/99 makes it perfectly clear that payment of compensation is specifically permitted not only to fishermen and owners of vessels, but to the processing industry affected by stock recovery plans. That is contained in European legislation. Why can that not apply to us? When our Committee put that to the Minister on 5 March, her response was to agree that the rules do allow compensation, but that it was not practical to pursue the proposal for this year's closures. The compensation was there, yet those closures came upon us this year.

Why is there no representation to Europe now? Why are we not knocking on the door? What about Mr Fischler's recent statement? The Minister has given the Committee an undertaking to carry out an assessment of the effects of this year's closures and consult with the other Fisheries Ministers on the arrangements for next year. Next year will be too late.

3.45 pm

The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, Mr Savage, and I met with the Minister this morning and pressed the case. We said that the door was closed and that the Minister had to knock on it and take her proposals to Europe. They will say, "No, no, no", but, eventually, if it is France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain or Portugal, the door will open. It is time the door opened for those fishermen sitting in the Public Gallery who are facing disaster for their families and their employment. The Minister must do something about the situation and do it with determination. She will have the backing of every Member.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Mr Savage):

I am pleased to see representatives from the fishing industry in the Public Gallery to hear local politicians debate this very important issue. That proves the value of a local Administration; we are talking about their future and their livelihoods.

The serious situation in the fishing industry is being forgotten in the midst of the real crisis that we are experiencing with the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The crisis in the fishing industry has been going on for the past 18 months, and there is real hardship and suffering in the fishing community. Boat owners have lost £50,000 in the past two years. A crew on a wage of £54 a week is hardly an economic statistic of which the Minister or anyone in the Assembly can be proud.

The way in which the fishing industry has been treated is evidence of a deeper problem - the way that the UK Government enforce European Union Regulations. Britain always enforces the rules to the maximum - to the absolute letter of the law - while other European partners continue to do exactly as they please, to their benefit and to suit their community. Our fishermen take care to conserve fish stocks, especially of young fish, yet our European partners sweep the seabed, eliminating young fish in the process and destroying the future raw material of the fishing industry. That vital raw material ends up being fed to animals, not even to humans. That is a crazy and irresponsible attitude. As a country we are going to have to address the issue of the difference between the levels of enforcement of European Regulations throughout the Community as a matter of urgency.

A new generosity of spirit needs to enter the relationship between the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the fishing industry. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) does not compensate in the event of a tie-up of fishing boats. That is bad policy and flies in the face of European Union Regulations that allow for compensation in the event of tie-up for fish stock recovery purposes. Only yesterday 'The Times' demanded that MAFF be closed down. The conduct of MAFF is hardly a good example for our Department in Northern Ireland. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should be following the European norm rather than the bad administrative example set by MAFF.

It is not enough for the Minister to say that she will look at this in the next round. The hardship caused by the tie-up of boats is being felt now. Relief is needed now. The Department treats the fishing industry in niggardly ways. It should remember that this is the second year of closures for Northern Ireland trawlermen, while it is only the first year for the North Sea fishermen. The situation is therefore more serious here. The Irish Government do not even charge their fishermen for lighthouses, which they no longer use in any case. However, we do charge for lighthouses - because MAFF says that we should.

I am not getting at our Minister, as I know that she has a very difficult job to do. However I ask her to remember that our fishermen cannot, unlike their Southern counterparts, benefit from fishing in fishing boxes that are not closed. The situation is getting worse because those boxes have been further restricted since 2000. Their situation is so much more serious that the Department must consider special status for them.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development could make representations on behalf of the fishing industry. That would be of immediate benefit. I am thinking of the boundary of the Irish Sea cod fishery, which has been restricted to 4°50' west. This should be returned to 5° west as it was in 2000 since that will cause confusion for both the fishermen and the inspectorate.

The haddock fishery derogation should have been extended until 30 April 2001, for example. The cut-off date - 22 April - was a Thursday, which did not even allow for a full week's fishing for our fishermen. Those are small matters, but in a situation like this, even small things can help. The deal that those fishermen have received so far is so niggardly - especially in the light of the further closures in 2001 - that they merit special status.

I quote from a paper that was discussed on Thursday 15 February 2001. My Chairperson was at the meeting. Our colleague's

"calls for financial aid to be made available to Northern Ireland's fishermen were given the thumbs up in Strasbourg this week when his report on Cod Fishing in the Irish Sea sailed through the Plenary unanimously."

That was on 15 February 2001.

"The Commission's savage . cuts" -

I had nothing to do with those cuts, of course -

"have done little to improve depleting fish stocks, and it is with great reluctance that we must now accept the emergency closures of four fishing areas, including areas of the Irish Sea"

said our colleague.

He continued:

"It is very hard for fishermen, many already facing financial hardship, to take on board a closure of their area for some twelve weeks. It is even harder when there are no support mechanisms available to help the industry find a way forward."

Bear this in mind:

"The Commission says 'let the national authorities come forward with ideas and we will take them on board' but the Government seems incapable of coming forward with any sincere proposals to help fishermen in the Province.

That is why [this] report proposes that financial assistance be made available to fishermen, not only to those who choose to decommission their vessels but also to those who are forced to keep their trawlers in port during the stock replenishment period. [Our] MEPs share [the] concern" -

our three MEPs from Northern Ireland -

"and support [the] proposals, it now remains to be seen whether the Commission will act."

I come back to what I said earlier:

"let the national authorities come forward with ideas and we will take them on board."

Those proposals have got to be put forward to help our industry survive. If not, the fishing industry will face the same problems as many other parts of the agriculture industry. It is not going to be here in a couple of years' time.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I remind Members that it is not normal practice to refer to people in the Gallery.

Mr McGrady:

I shall certainly not refer to the welcome that one would give to the people in the Gallery, which is forbidden by you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I support the motion. However, I have one small, or perhaps large, difficulty with it. That is the intention to provide short-term financial assistance to the fishing industry. That is our immediate problem, but the real problem is much bigger than that and much more of a long-term problem. In a sense, the necessity for short-term financial assistance is a result of the common fisheries policy, which has as its core the preservation of species for recovery. There is an inbuilt injustice when the European Union, which includes ourselves, requires conservation but is not prepared to pay for it.

That is really what this is all about. This is not the first year but the second year of the particular closure for white fish fishing. Last year was the same as this year. There is double jeopardy this year because other fishing grounds, which were a temporary alternative, are now also closed. As other Members have said, from Friday 23 March until 30 April - a five-week period - boats in Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie are tied up because they have nowhere to fish for their traditional catch. Unless, and this is the contradiction, they change their gearing and fish for nephrops. However, we have a problem with nephrops because this year the European Commission also reduced the total allowable catch of nephrops by 10%.

There are a series of inbuilt contradictions that are not the fault of the local Northern Ireland fishing industry, but the fault, or design, of the European Union. That is a grave injustice, given that the Northern Ireland fishermen and their organisations have constantly supported the conservation aspects of their industry.

One could argue that the Northern Ireland fishing fleet has made the greatest proportional sacrifice in the entire European Union through its contribution to conservation. Not only that, it has been proactive in proposing schemes to aid recovery plans for different species, yet those schemes have not been adopted. The Northern Ireland fishing industry has made the most major contribution, as we can easily see. The fleet has already been reduced by 30% - from around 240 boats to roughly 170 boats. That is an enormous proportional contribution, and it has not been matched by other EU member states. It is ironic that the Republic of Ireland has the ability to increase its fishing efforts while we in Northern Ireland have the disability of decreasing our fishing efforts, even though - if I may use a cliché - we are literally fishing in the same pool.

Another matter that strikes me as odd is that, away back in 1993, the European Commission made a special report on the Northern Ireland fishing industry. I remember quoting from it on one of my visits to Brussels. It said quite clearly that the Northern Ireland fishing industry and its major fishing grounds were a special case. Because of the industry's importance to the community and the onshore development that arises from it, and because it creates 50% of the employment in the fishing towns and villages, it is a special factor. It is also a special factor because, believe it or not, the Irish Sea is a special ecological biomass for the recovery of species.

The European Union said that in 1993, yet we have been unable to get a UK Government to pursue that special case, because it did not include the other ports around Great Britain. I remember, late night after late night at the House of Commons, making that plea, which always fell on deaf ears. As a result we have the problem of penetrating the apparently impenetrable blockade from Belfast to London to Brussels.

We must, in some way, create protocols by which that would happen.

4.00 pm

Members have correctly and eloquently put on record the statistics that reflect the horrific situation that the fishing industry is in. Given the time constraints it is not appropriate to repeat those, but there are three issues that must be addressed as a matter of some immediacy.

The first is the decommissioning scheme that was to have been put in place. I know that it has been held up pending agreement on the transitional Objective 1 programme. Now that that has been agreed, I hope that we are ready to move on that as soon as the other rules and regulations - which have nothing to do with the fishing industry - have been approved.

I have some misgivings about a decommissioning scheme, even though it is absolutely essential. I am terrified that some day, if we pursue this avenue and not other avenues, the Northern Ireland fishing fleet will reach a critical point where it can no longer sustain itself or the onshore factories and products that are so dependent upon it. We shall probably not know when that time will be until it arrives, but I am very wary of pursuing decommissioning with negative, rather than positive, action.

Meanwhile, we have skippers and crewmen tied up for the next number of weeks when they could be enjoying lucrative fishing. That is not their fault. It is the result of EU Regulations. Funding apparently could not be made available, although I have yet to be convinced of that.

Unfortunately I must scrap most of what I wanted to say today. However, there was a debate in the House of Commons on 25 January in which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that he would not rule anything out as regards urgent financial arrangements for the fishing industry. I took that in the positive sense, but it seems that I should have taken it in the negative sense - that he would rule nothing in. Nothing at all has happened on that issue.

Secondly, in relation to the "tie-up" proposals - and I know that that term is not liked - we are dealing with close working units of boat, crew and skipper. If those people have to stay ashore and take other jobs - albeit perhaps temporary ones - there is a danger that the skills, along with the total heritage of knowledge, will be dissipated and not brought to bear again on the industry. That can never be recovered - and certainly not in one generation. That aspect concerns me greatly.

Thirdly, we were promised that the further 10% reduction on nephrops, which was applied to assist cod recovery, would be lifted somewhat were statistics available to show that that percentage was not as high as the EU set it out to be. It was not as high - I think that the figure was around 0·2% - and therefore it was not a meaningful figure in terms of that restriction. The restriction must be removed immediately.

With 2,500 people dependent on the fishing industry, I want to see at least those three issues addressed immediately. Finally, I regret that the motion was not allowed to have total cross-community support, as was intended at the meeting in Portavogie. South Down Members were to be asked to sign the motion, but that did not happen.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. In supporting the motion, and asking for short-term financial assistance for the fishing industry, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must strike a balance and address the long-term problems that the fishing fleet faces.

It is unfortunate that on 21 March, when meeting the fish producers, the Minister, Ms Rodgers, appeared once again to rule out any form of "tie-up" scheme. The Minister must realise that 2,500 people are employed in the sea fishing industry. The problem affects not only the fishermen, but businesses and employment - in fact the whole economy. The fishing industry will lose out if we do not support it and provide it with what it needs. Can we afford to create such a situation in another industry? My constituency of South Down is feeling the effects of foot-and-mouth disease. The fishing industry has been the backbone of areas of South Down, such as Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass, for many years. There are 2,500 people employed in sea fishing, and up to 50% of that workforce comes from Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie.

In 1999, £2·6 million worth of fish and shellfish was landed in the north of Ireland, and a further £70 million was added to the value of the industry by 44 local processing companies. The introduction of the Irish Sea cod recovery programme and the closure of fishing grounds have had a great impact on the fishing industry. Our fishing fleet has shrunk by 30% over the past 10 years, and there are only 170 fishing vessels more than 10 metres in length left.

Our fishing industry has never depended on tie-up schemes, compensation or subsidies. The current proposals for tie-up schemes have been forced on us by the British Government and the EU. The fishermen want to go to sea and earn a living. They do not want to see the slow death of the fishing industry or the devastation that that will bring to the fishing communities' economy. The 9·6% increase in the budget for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development provided the sea fisheries division with an extra £125,000. However, all of that additional money has been spent on enforcing the cod recovery programme.

The delay in the decommissioning of fishing vessels is linked to the delay in transitional Objective 1 funding. We need more action and more money. Fishermen were told in November 1999 that the impact of the cod recovery plan would be offset. We are now in the second year of closure. We need legislation, and I am sure that we shall get all-party support for that.

We have been waiting for an announcement on the decommissioning of fishing vessels for 18 months. It is sad that, while other EU fishing fleets are expanding, EU rules, regulations and closures mean that decommissioning our fleet is the only option for many fishermen. We need assistance for decommissioning for those who want to leave the industry and financial assistance for those who want to stay.

Many fishermen who have traditionally fished off the County Down coast have been forced to fish in the North Channel. Those fishermen face closure because of the EU decision on the cod recovery programme that was made on 13 February. Next year, the closure in the North Channel and the Irish Sea will happen together. Where will our white fish fleet go? This is the only area with a recovery plan that includes inshore water. Fishermen here do not have the opportunity to fish away from close fishing grounds, and there is no reason why the financial problems that we faced last year will not be repeated - in fact, they will be far worse - owing to the additional closures.

We need an immediate financial package for the white fish fleet. There are 13 boats tied up in Kilkeel, and they are losing their crews because there is no money to pay them. Financial aid has been introduced by other EU member states: Holland, Belgium, France and the South of Ireland, but not here. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Ford:

Many of the problems experienced by the fishermen have been aired in the Chamber today. There has been considerable unanimity. I shall not repeat all that has been said. I congratulate the six Members for Strangford on working together to bring such an essential topic to the Chamber. I apologise on behalf of Kieran McCarthy, who is elsewhere on Assembly business. I shall do my best to speak for him. As a representative of South Antrim who lives in a rural area, I know more about the other areas for which the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has responsibility than I do about the fishing fleet. During Committee meetings here and on the occasion on which we met them in the three fishing ports - with rather exciting results - fishermen's representatives have made the Agriculture Committee aware of the problems that the industry is having. It is obvious that something must be done to help them.

The necessity for conservation measures is a matter for debate. Unfortunately, it is considered only in the latter part of the year, just before the Fisheries Council meets, leaving little time to plan for what will happen in the springtime. We all know, of course, that counting fish numbers for quotas is an inexact science. The Minister has acknowledged that counting sheep numbers in recent weeks has been a bit of a problem; sheep, at least, have the decency to stay on the surface of the land, although we cannot necessarily be sure which bit of the surface they are on. Let us assume that the conservation measures required by Brussels are accurate. Eddie McGrady said correctly that we should not discuss only the short-term problems; there is a long-term issue. Notwithstanding that, what can the Minister do in the short term to deal with the immediate problem that faces fishermen?

There is no doubt that the decommissioning scheme is somewhat belated. I am not sure whether it is welcome, but it is almost certainly necessary to allow people who are reaching the end of their career to depart from the industry with a degree of dignity. Today, we must consider what we should do, not for the people who are prepared to decommission their vessels but for those who wish to continue in the fishing industry and who have a long-term future there. That has not been addressed properly, and the decommissioning scheme is all that is on offer.

Concerns about the implementation of the cod recovery programme have been highlighted already. There is the question of the diversion to fishing for nephrops and all the problems and additional difficulties that that may create. It is noticeable that there has been wider agreement than we would normally expect on the tie-up scheme because of that difficulty. It is perhaps the first time that fishermen and conservationists have agreed that a tie-up scheme could serve the economic needs of fishermen in the short term and the need for conservation of fish stocks in the long term. That has not been given the attention that it should have been given in recent weeks.

A few weeks ago, the fishermen gave the Committee details of what their needs are, and the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd (ANIFPO) put out a detailed plan as to how such a scheme could be implemented. So far, the only response we seem to have received from the Minister and her officials in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is that it is not really the done thing in UK policy and that up to the present it has not happened.

4.15 pm

The fishermen - and MLAs - might reasonable ask what is the point of devolution if the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is not in a position to look to the real needs of Northern Ireland and forget what is done in England, Scotland and Wales. As Northern Ireland representatives, we expect our Ministers to respond to the needs of Northern Ireland and not to take the view that Whitehall may not approve. Indeed, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has given us some very positive examples of that. When the issue of beef support came up a while ago she produced a scheme that suited Northern Ireland better than that which was being implemented in England, Scotland and Wales. She exercised her discretion then.

There is absolutely no doubt that she has exercised considerable discretion regarding the foot-and-mouth disease crisis. She has made a much stronger case for Northern Ireland than that which has been made in Great Britain. We must ask her what she is now going to do on behalf of the fishermen.

There have been many clichés recently. It has been said that fishermen are experiencing something similar to foot-and-mouth disease, but I do not believe that to be the case. What they are going through is something more like foot-and-mouth disease, BSE and swine vesicular disease all wrapped together. They are now experiencing their second year of crisis. There has been some aid for the beef industry and for pig producers in the past. However, there has been absolutely nothing of short-term benefit, and almost nothing of long-term benefit, for fishermen.

That is why we must ask the Minister to give us a real answer; not just some hopes and recitations as to what is being done by the MAFF-approved decommissioning scheme.

Short-term aid is needed for fishermen because they have had to make short-term decisions. They are faced with the situation whereby the Fisheries Council decides, just before December, what is going to happen a few months later. I do not know how anyone running a business, especially one such as fishing or farming, is expected to take decisions three months before serious changes are to be implemented because a diktat appears when the Council of Ministers meets. In the face of the short-term decisions that are made affecting fishermen, they have every right to make the case for short-term aid to help them cope. That is what would happen in other aspects of agriculture.

There is a case for a tie-up scheme. Other Members have already elaborated on it and I shall not go through it again. The case is there; it is just, and it is reasonable. It is essential so that stocks can recover and fishermen who wish to continue in the industry can prepare for the future. I trust that the Minister will listen to the unanimous view that is being expressed in the Chamber.

Mr C Wilson:

I support the motion. I congratulate Mr Shannon on the very thorough manner in which he has laid out the case for the Northern Ireland fishermen. I would like to thank Mr Alan McCulla, the chief executive of ANIFPO, for the information he provided and for how well he has represented the views of the fishermen.

To back up what Mr Ford has said, the motion is supported by all the elected representatives for Strangford and the other areas in which fishing takes place. Undoubtedly, the question on the lips of the fishermen from Portavogie, which is within my constituency, Ardglass and Kilkeel will be, "Is the Assembly going to be part of the solution to our problems or will it simply add another tier of bureaucracy?". The question does bear scrutiny, because we have heard the view of elected representatives from all parties that, to a large extent, bureaucracy is hampering our fishing industry.

I refer to a letter from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Bríd Rodgers, to the chief executive of the ANIFPO. I quote from the second paragraph:

"I have explained to the Committee that it has not been policy to compensate for closures or quota reductions. To reverse this position would require detailed consultation and agreement amongst the fisheries departments in the member state. In addition, while there is no provision in EU regulation for payment of compensation in such circumstances, the proposed compensation must be argued and approved before the recovery plan is introduced."

The question that raises for the Minister today - and Members have already mentioned this - is why, considering that she has put forward a case that Brussels and Westminster are undoubtedly promoting, we are getting concrete information that suggests that the Dutch Government and their fishermen have reached an agreement to introduce an aid package that is exactly the type of scheme we seek for fishermen in Northern Ireland. We seek a short-term scheme to deal with the current problem that is facing the fishing industry here.

Members have already said that what we are facing in Northern Ireland is the prospect of the ruination of the age-old tradition of fishing in our major ports of Portavogie, Kilkeel and Ardglass. As Dr Paisley has said, this is not simply the end of an industry. It will have a catastrophic effect on the villages and townlands in those areas, where 50% of the people are employed in the fishing industry in some shape or form. It will be particularly so on the Ards Peninsula and down the coast to Kilkeel.

Many of the men who are sitting in the Public Gallery today are facing a road down which, as Mr McGrady has said, they do not wish to go - the road to decommissioning. Years ago many of them were encouraged to take out large loans and mortgage their homes. Those are men who have no option but to go with whatever scheme is available to take them out of their present situation, in which they risk losing everything that they have in the world. They do not have the luxury of any other options. As Mr McGrady has rightly pointed out, what we are looking at today is only a short-term fix, a way of dealing with the current crisis.

I want to say to the fishermen and their representatives that we know that they are proud men who simply want the right to fish. They are not looking for handouts; they are not looking for money to tie up their boats or destroy them. What they want to do is fish. The problem for those men and their families is that the bureaucratic system in Brussels and at Westminster is preventing them from doing what is their natural right to do.

I understand that the amount of money required to introduce and implement a short-term scheme for five weeks is relatively small - some £760,000 if my figures are correct. That money must be found urgently. Where there is a will, there is a way. I hope that when this debate is over and the Minister has given her reply, the fishermen will leave this Chamber in the knowledge that the issue will not be going away.

It is not enough for parties to support the motion only to allow bureaucracy to be used once again as an excuse for failing to deliver the required money. Failure by the Assembly to find that money in the short term, cut through the red tape and deliver the money right now will mean failure for us and ruin for the fishing industry in Northern Ireland.

Mrs I Robinson:

Three of the sectors in Strangford and South Down are vital to the economy - farming, textiles and fishing - and we all know about the decline affecting those three major industries. It is evident from the press releases published before any debate in the Assembly that the plight of our fishermen will receive a fair hearing. The press, in its coverage, has also captured the local mood, but that alone will not be enough. Sympathy will not pay a single wage. We do not want to have a nine-day wonder, marked by a good deal of talk and nice words without any affirmative action to match.

Farming has received a great deal of publicity because of BSE and the scourge of foot-and-mouth disease, and farmers will receive some assistance. I impress on Members that no one begrudges them a penny of that money, especially fishermen. However, we must not fail to assist the fishing industry, which is also facing a crisis, in every way that we can. The help requested by the fishermen, because of the cod recovery plan, will be short-term help. The closed area will exist for around five weeks, from now until the end of April. At present, boats are tied up, and they will remain so until the fishermen are allowed to resume fishing.

Let us not overlook the simple fact that fishermen have not received one penny in subsidy - that in itself is a remarkable fact. This industry is worth £90 million a year; it is a vital part of our local economy, and it must be assisted to enable it to survive. Perhaps we could follow the example set in Scotland. Its Parliament gave fishermen more than sympathy - it gave them financial help. As we all know, there is money in the Northern Ireland system, and some of it will be spent in less important ways, such as on the Civic Forum, which costs taxpayers millions of pounds a year. The fishing industry is now crying out for help, and we should divert some of that money to the fishermen.

The fishermen do not want the Minister of Agriculture to say "I hear what you are saying. I sympathise. We shall lobby Europe.", and so on. They are here today, and they are asking the Assembly to tell them exactly what will be done for them. This is a call for short-term aid; the fishermen are not asking for long-term aid today, although that must be dealt with sooner rather than later. They are asking for the aid that other countries, such as Spain, Italy, Belgium and Holland, are giving to their fishing industries. These European countries have all given assistance under article 16 of the EU Regulation 2792/1999.

Under the Belgian scheme, for example, 300 boats received fixed costs as compensation for being tied up. In Holland, £7,000 was paid to each owner for eight consecutive days when their boats were tied up. No wonder they were happy with the scheme. The Spanish authorities gave their fishermen a massive 60 million euros. Of course some countries just ignore the regulations, which were so slavishly imposed on us. France, for example, failed to set appropriate rules for use of quotas and also failed to monitor fishing and the enforcement of regulations. Even more striking, why are the fishing fleets of other countries increasing in numbers when ours is decreasing? The Republic of Ireland has recently taken possession of 16 new trawlers. How can that be? Where is the level playing field?

According to the Department's figures, there are 344 locally licensed vessels.


<< Prev / Next >>