Single hand on tiller of Irish marine policy is vital for nation


OPINION:The Government’s plan for the maritime sector is welcome but not integrating activities in one department is a mistake

YOU COME across a reference to an island nation – the 20th largest in the world – that doesn’t have a marine policy or a marine department, and you think it must be some kind of a joke. It’s a ship of state without a captain or a rudder.

It adds insult to injury to discover that this same island nation moved to the verge of bankruptcy after her inhabitants turned their backs on the ocean and invested too heavily in the land.

So much for living in a smart economy.

Not many people living in Ireland realise that it’s the third biggest country in Europe, by virtue of her seabed territory of 220 million acres.

We have in the past been able to blame a lot of our maritime ignorance on the British, with a little justification. Boat ownership by the “native Irish” was restricted at times, and fishing permitted only by licence. But that was 400 years ago, so we’re running out of excuses.

If you’re searching for a recent symbol of this marine neglect, look no further than Asgard II. At 30 years old, the boat was at the end of her working life when she sank off the coast of France in 2008.

She was our maritime flagship, a national icon that had given 10,000 young people the chance to go to sea. The insurance money paid out and it went into central exchequer funds. The State has no interest in replacing her.

The sail training programme sank with the ship.

Ask any fisherman what EU membership did for our trawler fleet and you will get a quick answer. Ireland has two-thirds of European fishing waters and 3 per cent of the catch. That sell-out, as the fishing community saw it, was the beginning of the end of marine policy in Ireland.

There is the occasional wave of optimism – the return of the Volvo Ocean Race to Galway and the Tall Ships to Dublin this summer was cause for celebration – but these one-off events are no substitute for a marine policy, or a marine department.

After the 2007 general election, responsibility for the marine was broken up over five departments. Today confusion reigns, and there are at least six departments involved.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has responsibility for the Irish fishing fleet, but Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is responsible for some other aspects of fisheries – drift nets, for example.

The Naval Service and its fleet – which in turn monitors fishing – comes under the Department of Defence. But the marine leisure section, responsible for our fleet of 27,500 recreational craft – where did that go? The Marine Industry Federation found that the leisure section was missing and put out its own alert, but it hasn’t been located yet.

If you want to build a marina, to cater for the growing Irish leisure boating fleet, you need to apply to the Department of the Environment. But other water sports activities come under the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

The Department of Transport, which would have no transport to deal with at all if it wasn’t for the ships that bring in fuel to this country, doesn’t refer to “marine” in its title, but it has a marine division.

This is the department containing the Irish Coast Guard management that wants to close the coastal radio stations at Valentia and Malin Head.

Today there is some hope of an awakening to Ireland’s vast maritime potential with the recent launch of Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth: An Integrated Marine Plan for Ireland. Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney even went as far as to admit that we had “turned our backs on the sea”.

The Government’s new marine plan is a welcome commitment, but it is unfortunate that the opportunity to integrate management of Ireland’s maritime activities within a dedicated department with a single brief has been passed over in favour of an interdepartmental marine co-ordination group. One look at Canada, where a similar plan was implemented, shows how development can be impeded by separate departments talking over each other.

When everyone is responsible, then no one is.

What could a single department do to improve the sector? A vital missing piece in the jigsaw is the absence of a way to license space in the ocean.

All the Irish coast is now subject to competing interest from shipping, fishing, port expansion, marine leisure, offshore energy and nature conservation, but the legislation to govern it was drafted 80 years ago when the motive was the removal of sand and seaweed from our beaches.

What business is going to invest in the sea – whether it’s marine leisure, aquaculture or renewable energy – if there is doubt to the rights over the foreshore? Ireland has a chronically underdeveloped marina system. The single marina in La Rochelle, France, for example, has the same capacity as our entire island. There are more berths in north Wales alone than there are in all of Ireland.

Marinas create small hubs of marine enterprise, supplying services to cater for the boat owners gathered there or just visiting, and bringing massive spin-off benefits for the neighbouring coastal communities.

A visiting overseas boat leaves €132 per night in the local economy. A visiting Irish boat leaves considerably more, at over €300 per night. The average spend of a boat owner in a marina berth is more than €8,000 per annum. One full-time job is supported by every 3.7 marina berths.

And what of that other untapped marine resource – energy? With a prime location on the edge of the Atlantic and the continental shelf, the potential for wind, wave and tidal energy from our coastline and territorial waters is as clear as it is neglected.

These energy sources could go a long way towards delivering energy security, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and creating jobs.

A single maritime authority that can make decisions relating to the sea is essential for an island people. This means strengthening the Department of the Marine and returning it to a full ministerial brief. It means putting someone in charge of Irish waters, for this island nation.

David O’Brien is a sailing correspondent of The Irish Times and editor of Ireland Afloat magazine. He is a former Olympic sailor, chairman of the Irish Marine Federation and a member of the National Yacht Club in Dún Laoghaire.

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