Fishing protest: ‘This isn’t about fishermen; this is about every single citizen of the State’

Workers and families take to Dublin streets amid frustration with Brexit and EU rules

A flotilla of fishing vessels is sailed up the Liffey on Wednesday to protest against large Brexit-related losses outside a sitting of the Dáil at the convention centre.

 

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, dozens of fishing boats cruised quietly up the river Liffey in a kind of stealth assault on the capital. The silence would not last long.

By 10am, many hundreds of fishing sector workers and families – most of whom had travelled overland – were preparing to march on the temporary Dáil site in Dublin’s Convention Centre to protest various problems in the sector, notably access to fish stocks.

A flotilla of up to 70 Irish fishing vessels assembles in Dublin Port for a protest. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
A flotilla of up to 70 Irish fishing vessels assembles in Dublin Port for a protest. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Children held placards demanding their futures be protected; fishermen wore baseball hats insisting being allowed catch 15 per cent was not enough, a reference to the proportion of fish available to them in Irish waters. Everywhere, anti-EU bureaucracy sentiment hung in the air, as volunteers handed out free crabmeat rolls and face masks.

“Basically 30 per cent of my income was stolen by the EU and given to the UK,” said Michael Callahan, a pelagic fisherman from Killybegs in Co Donegal whose mackerel quota was hit hard by Brexit.

His father was a fisherman too and his youngest son Cian (7) talks only about fishing. Dressed in yellow wax waterproofs and brandishing a toy mackerel, Cian was most likely unaware the surrounding protest was about his future.

“The periphery of Ireland has always, always depended on fishing; the coastal communities,” Callahan said. “And we have been chipped away and chipped away and now 25 per cent extra has been taken away over Brexit . . . there’s not much 25 per cents left.”

The 25 per cent figure refers to the proportion of fish caught by EU vessels in British waters that the EU has agreed to relinquish following Brexit.

Drive for unity

Frustrations in the fishing community are nothing new, particularly when it comes to EU designated quotas. But now an often fragmented group, spurred on by Brexit and impatience with the political class, appears bent on unity.

Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, said much of the problem facing the industry arguably lies in explaining a highly technical, often prolonged list of grievances.

“The Irish people have to understand this isn’t about fishermen; this is about every single citizen of the State,” Mr Murphy said, seeking to address that issue.

He focused squarely on the economic value of fishing rights: “Here’s a revenue stream for them [the State’s citizens]. The boats are here, the skillset is there, the fish are there. The only thing that’s happening is that Europe are saying we’re not entitled to a fair share of fish in our own waters.”

Protest organisers, made up of five industry groups, delivered a list of seven demands to the Dáil, dealing variously with Brexit, access to waters, landing regulations, funding, labour and the Common Fisheries Policy.

Children from Kerry, Dublin and Castletownbere join the fishing protest in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Children from Kerry, Dublin and Castletownbere join the fishing protest in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

A major contention is a new European Commission stipulation that Irish catches are weighed on the pier rather than in processing plants, following a controversial audit of the Irish system in 2018.

“We know you can’t take ice off fish to weigh them, to put ice back on fish. From a shellfish perspective the same rules apply,” said Brendan Byrne of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, referring to a need to re-ice fish when they are weighed on the pier under the stipulation. He fears the rules will see Irish boats land their catches elsewhere to the demise of his industry.

“Don’t ask us to do something that is incredibly stupid.”

‘Just crazy’

For more than four decades Martin Deasy has been fishing out of Union Hall in Co Cork and has invested €150,000 in onboard refrigeration, only now to be told his catch must be tipped out on the pierside.

“[To] take all the ice off it, weigh it and send if off to the factory [after] icing it again, it’s just crazy,” he said.

“Irish fish is highly regarded in Europe, highly regarded for quality. We care for that as good as we can. But to be put out on the pier when we come in, leave it there for five or six hours with the sun and seagulls passing over it . . . we cannot believe what has happened.”

Mr Deasy and the long line of protesters wound their way over the Samuel Beckett Bridge toward a space beside the Convention Centre. There a microphone was opened, at turns, to angry industry reps and seemingly incredulous TDs vowing their support.

Calmer voices among the crowd pondered the simple, disheartening prospect of a future without an industry.

Fisherman Seamus O’Flaherty from Kilmore Quay. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Fisherman Seamus O’Flaherty from Kilmore Quay. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

“I’ve been told that for every fisherman at sea there is another four to five jobs on land supporting that. They say there’s what, 16,000 fishermen?” said Seamus O’Flaherty, a marine engineer who would emigrate if work dried up in the fishing town of Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford, where he grew up working on the boats.

“It’s not as simple as turning off the key of a fishing boat, walking off and finding a job on land somewhere,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle most people have grown up in and a lifestyle they want to continue doing.”