‘Britain ruled the waves. It was took off us by the EU . . . the dogs’
In Kilkeel, Co Down, fishermen blame the EU for the industry’s decline, but not all agree
Leslie Garvan on board one of his two fishing boats in Kilkeel harbor in Northern Ireland. Photograph: James Forde for The Irish Times
“Go back to f**kin’ [Horatio] Nelson, if you like. Britain ruled the waves then. It was took off us by the EU . . . the dogs,” says the 76-year-old, who has been going to sea from Kilkeel since 1959.
Garvan is a now successful, Jaguar-driving businessman. He owns two trawlers, as well as a fuel-oil business which supplies the fleet at Kilkeel, one of the North’s main fishing ports, and a brokerage that buys and sells catches.
Following Thursday’s Brussels deal, senior Northern Irish fishing figures are bullish. The industry does not need to negotiate, says Harry Wick, the chief executive of the NI Fish Producers’ Organisation.
It will be for the EU to make concessions to negotiate access to UK waters.
“We hold the cards,” he says. “We can afford to say we don’t want any EU access into our waters.”
Brexit, however, is likely to shred the decades-old rulebook for an industry deeply embedded on both sides of the Border – an industry that has always had an influence that outweighs its economic importance.
Fishing contributes about the same to the UK economy as lock and hinge makers, or ride-on lawnmowers. Yet, it stays centre stage because it is often a proxy for sovereignty concerns.
Fishing once offered settled futures for places such as Kilkeel, including to people such as Alan McCulla, who now runs the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (Anifpo).
Locally influential, McCulla, a onetime aide to DUP MEP Diane Dodds, is an ardent Brexiteer. Sitting alongside Garvan in the Anifpo building on the Kilkeel quays, the pair argue that EU fishing rules have been built on deceit.
After accession, times were good. A ban on North Sea herring fishing drove a boom in the Irish Sea, and Kilkeel boomed louder than most. EU and government grants paid for two-thirds of the cost of a new trawler.
Kilkeel’s fleet grew from 40 boats to more than 160, with locals today remembering being able to walk from boat to boat across the width of the harbour. Now, McCulla sees the EU grants as a “bribe . . . to make everyone believe that the European machinery is so terrific.”
If there’s border checks or anything like that, that’s going to add two or three hours on each way
In the last 30 years, fishermen’s quotas have been savaged. Life after Brexit will be better, both argue.
“We can’t come out of it, frankly, worse. We’ve got to come out of it better,” says Garvan.
In the Neptune Cafe on the seaside, former fisherman Jim Hill agrees. He cites the trope that Brexit is like the millennium bug – a contrived panic.
“Get on with it, get it over with,” he says.
Some, however, are more cautious.
“I deliver to the South nearly every day. If there’s border checks or anything like that, that’s going to add two or three hours on each way,” says Jamie Gibbons, who drives a SeaSource delivery van.
Below decks on the trawler Renown, skipper Lawrence Warnock is busy mending nets. The nets are strictly measured, thanks to EU regulations, to help small fish escape. If he is boarded and found with the wrong nets he could face heavy fines, or lose his licence. Initially, the regulations frustrated him, but now he sees their worth reflected in healthier fish stocks.
When not looking for fish, Warnock is in search of workers, and they are increasingly hard to find. In 2016, fishing was one of the lowest-paid professions, with average earnings of just £19,004 per year.
Four Ghanaian migrants work with Warnock and his father, Philip.
“If you bring in the likes of a local man, he doesn’t want to do the work,” explains Warnock. “They just get on with their work and they don’t complain.”
Not all of fishing’s problems can be laid at the door of the EU, argues Chris Williams. During the original carve-up of fishing rights in the 1970s, the UK was outmanoeuvred by the French, Belgians and Dutch.
“If your negotiator comes back with a bad deal, do you blame the people he was negotiating with?” he asks.
Meanwhile, UK quotas are largely given to the big operators. Nearly everything goes to corporate-owned offshore fleets with large trawlers. But three-quarters of the UK fleet is small, inshore boats, left to scramble for just 2 per cent of the quota.
The grievance for fishing communities is what was lost, and what never came to replace it
“Telling people it’s because of the EU is untrue,” according to Williams. “There’s a convenient bogeyman which means the government doesn’t have to take responsibility for its own decisions.”
“The EU alone is not the cause of hardship in fishing communities,” he says, “The grievance for fishing communities is what was lost, and what never came to replace it. But the EU is the wrong target.”
Both McCulla and Garvan agree that a no-deal Brexit – if that were to happen – would create difficulties, but solutions can be found.
“If there’s a pound to be made on both sides, business will find a way to make that pound,” says Garvan.
Reality, again, may be more complex. More than a third of the Northern Irish catch goes to EU markets – though Norwegian fish faces 70 per cent tariffs to get to the shops.
Pain, argues Mac Flynn, is impossible to avoid. High tariffs would not change export trade flows – it would eliminate them.
“It’s not like the UK is suddenly going to start consuming more fish,” he says.
Voters have been told, Williams says, that things will be “perfect the next day” after Brexit, ignoring the fact that years of negotiations lie ahead, with “few immediate benefits out of it”.
Pro-Brexit voices argue that global sales will replace EU losses, even though access to such markets is currently ruled by EU trade deals, and the UK will take years to negotiate something to replace them.