So long and thanks for all the fish

BUSINESS OPINION/John McManus: Normally you would expect to find cod covered in batter and wrapped up in the Sunday World rather…

BUSINESS OPINION/John McManus: Normally you would expect to find cod covered in batter and wrapped up in the Sunday World rather than featuring on its news pages. But sometimes it takes the tabloid press to get to the heart of an issue and the current row over Ireland's fish stocks is one such time. Two weeks ago the Sunday World asked a few pertinent questions of Eurostat - the Commission's statistics service - which put the whole thing in a different perspective.

The upshot of their inquiries was the conclusion that the €30 billion or so in transfers that Ireland has received from the EU since we joined in 1973 is dwarfed by the €120 billion worth of fish that has been taken out of Irish waters during this period, most of it by boats from other EU states. This surprising figure is arrived at by multiplying the estimate for the amount of fish caught in Irish waters during the period - some 36 million tonnes - by the average value of catch when processed over the period. The rule of thumb adopted by Eurostat is that the value of the catch is doubled when processed.

It is a crude analysis and no doubt can be picked apart by anyone determined to do so. But even assuming that the figures exaggerate the value of the fish caught by 100 per cent, that still leaves us with €50 billion, which is over one and a half times more than we received in agricultural subsidies and structural funds during the period.

The figure puts flesh on the bones of the long-standing perception that when we joined the Common Market - as the EU was then known - we traded our fishing rights to get a good deal for farmers. At the time it seemed like a pretty good bargain, but if the above figures are even half accurate, perhaps it wasn't quite so clever.


Why we should have negotiated what appears with hindsight to be such a one-sided deal is not to hard to understand. Fishing has always been the poor relation of agriculture in Ireland and numerous reasons have been been put forward over the years to explain this.

My favourite is a variation of the "700 years of British colonial oppression" school of thinking. The theory goes that under the penal laws Catholics were restricted from owning boats larger than the average currach. As a result an indigenous fishing industry didn't develop here in the way it did in England - or Spain for that matter . Instead the rich fishing grounds off the west coast were exploited by fleets of herring boats from Britain. In truth, this is probably only part of the explanation, with other factors such as distance to market also playing a part.

Regardless of the reason, the fishing industry in Ireland has never come close to reflecting the size of the resources available to it. As a consequence fishermen have never equalled the agricultural lobby in terms of political clout. This was the case in 1973 and is still the case today. The total value of fish landed in Ireland last year was €250 million and the number of people employed in the industry is around 16,000. Compare this to agriculture which contributes €9.4 billion to the economy and employs 110,000.

WHY then - all of a sudden - has the nation been convulsed by fears that something called the Irish box is about to be opened up to rapacious Spanish fishermen? As many have learnt over the last few weeks the Irish box is a section of our 200 mile economic exclusion zone that was established in 1985 when Spain and Portugal joined the European Union. The Iberian fleets are allowed only limited access to the Irish box, but can roam unhindered in the rest of the Irish exclusion zone along with boats from all the other EU states.

Again there are several explanations for the new-found national concern about our fishing grounds. One is the extent to which the industry has got its act together in recent years and copied the tactics used with such effect by the farming lobby. This new wave of fishing industry activism has coincided with growing Irish disenchantment with the European project.

All of this public interest in fishing comes at the right time for the industry which is facing into a crucial couple of months. The Common Fisheries Policy is due for review by the end of the year and the future of the Irish box is up for grabs. In addition there will be the annual round of quota negotiations in December which will take place against the background of scientific advice that the Irish Sea should be closed to fishing because stocks of cod and other fish have fallen to unsustainable levels.

The issue is now a political priority for Dermot Ahern, the minister who had the marine brief tacked onto his new communications department as an afterthought. He has pledged to defend the Irish box and keep the Spaniards at bay.

Students of the Brussels scene - and the fisheries quota negotiations in particular - will tell you that a deal is already done by the time a minister starts to invest his political capital in the way Mr Ahern is doing. As with much of what goes on in Brussels the next few weeks will be more about choreography than anything else.

The Irish Sea will not be closed, a "new" Irish box will be agreed and Ireland will get increased quotas for a number of valuable species of fish. In short there will be a continuation of the system which - according to EU Fisheries Commissioner Franz Fischler - "falsified scientific advice and emptied the seas of the very assets on which your industry depends".

The press release detailing Mr Ahern's heroics during tense late-night negotiations next month is probably half-written and the minister looking forward to a political victory that should play well at home if the current level of interest keeps up. The truth is the fish are all gone and Mr Ahern is 29 years and €120 billion too late.