Diarmaid Ferriter: We have lost our heritage along with the islands

One Inishbofin fisherman’s battle is relevant in Brexit debate

 ‘We seem to have lost our islands a long time ago; did they finally sink?’  Above,  Inishbofin Island, Co Galway. Photograph: Frank Miiller

‘We seem to have lost our islands a long time ago; did they finally sink?’ Above, Inishbofin Island, Co Galway. Photograph: Frank Miiller

 

We seem to have lost our heritage. Does anyone know where it has gone?

Perhaps an obvious place to search would be with our new Minister for Miscellaneous, Heather Humphreys, or to use her formal title, Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht. In her recent previous ministerial life, Humphreys was Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which, in the current climate of departmental title gymnastics, seems an almost spartan list.

Humphreys could be asked a simple question: why did heritage get the heave-ho? Is it no longer required because the bulk of the 1916 commemorations have been completed?

What now for the statement of strategy for Heritage 2015-17, which promises to “conserve and manage our unique heritage for the benefit of present and future generations?” Taking a longer view, what about the late 1990s when the newly four-headed department was a different four-headed department; Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands? We seem to have lost our islands a long time ago; did they finally sink? Or are islands and heritage buried under the regional development and rural affairs labels?

These questions were on my mind during the week, watching the absorbing documentary on TG4 by French filmmaker Loic Jourdain, In Éadan an Taoide, which charts the efforts over the last decade of fisherman John O’Brien of Inishbofin Island, off the coast of Donegal, to regain the right to fish, on a small scale, like his father and uncles before him, for wild Atlantic salmon.

When the Irish government in 2007 insisted on pushing through an EU ban on drift-netting for salmon, O’Brien, along with a small group, including fishermen from the neighbouring Arranmore Island, refused to accept the €18,900 (before tax) offer of compensation, as “I didn’t want to sell out my children’s rights.”

Preoccupation

For all the preoccupation of the EU with endangered species, and for all O’Brien was reading “about EU measures to create sanctuaries for fragile species, there was no word about humans”. Ironically, because of the loss of the salmon option, the O’Brien family had to turn to lobster and crab fishing which put too much pressure on lobster stocks, while further EU restrictions on whitefish landings meant live bait for crab was unavailable. He took the issue to the European Parliament where, eventually, he and a small band of committed supporters managed to secure a clause in a new common fisheries policy permitting member states to protect island communities.

O’Brien also pushed the issue with the Oireachtas Joint Sub Committee on Fisheries, which in January 2014 published its Report on Promoting Sustainable Rural Coastal and Island Communities and suggested the government examine “heritage licences to be issued . . . for rural coastal and island communities. Such licences would optimally facilitate traditional fishing practices”. O’Brien is still waiting.

Aspects of the story of O’Brien tell us much about heritage, islands and the EU and indeed, the Irish government’s craven deference to the EU, as it interpreted fisheries policy in too extreme a way in its desire to be seen as a “good” member.

O’Brien can also highlight the contradictions of governments that proclaim their commitment to the viability of Gaeltacht communities while metaphorically throwing the likes of O’Brien under a fishing trawler, even though he represents the very essence of the Gaeltacht and island communities that have been rhetorically championed since the foundation of the State (the population of inhabited Irish islands decreased by 35 per cent between the 1960s and the 1990s; Inishbofin’s declined by over 95 per cent).

Privatisation

As O’Brien rightly points out, this was also about heritage and the Gaeltacht being sacrificed on the altar of privatisation: “a transfer of the resource, the loss of a public right among coastal communities to private fishery owners”.

Jourdain is “struck by the fact that other EU member states have pushed for heritage status for their islands”.

Even allowing for the disappearance of heritage from the title of the new Government Department, the O’Brien story highlights much that is relevant to the stated priorities of the new Government: rural, regional, Gaeltacht, food and marine development, natural resources and social development.

A measure of its seriousness about these issues will be its willingness to tackle the soluble issues John O’Brien, at considerable personal cost, has championed for so long.

These issues are also relevant to what the Government is very vocal about – the prospect of Brexit.

There are plenty of fishermen in the UK who do not have to think twice about voting to leave the EU over what they regard as the damage it has done to their livelihood and their heritage.

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