AN emergency session of board members of the Irish South and West Fishermen’s Organisation took place in Castletownbere last weekend amid intense anger in fishing ports around the country.
They listened to the story of two fishermen in the organisation, brothers Patrick and Cathal O’Sullivan, who had been appellants in a Supreme Court hearing which quashed a penalty points system that the Department of the Marine had sought to impose on fishermen for alleged breaches of regulations.
Their trawler, Tea Rose had been boarded at Castletownbere on April 7, 2015 and Cathal O’Sullivan, as Master, was charged at Bantry District Court with under-recording a catch of hake, cod, haddock and pollock. The system provided for attaching penalty points to fishing licences, which leads to the eventual suspension and withdrawal of the licence itself, depending on how many points were incurred.
The two fishermen fought the case for two years, backed by fish producer organisations around the country.
Cork solicitor Dermot Conway led the fishermen’s case to the stage where it was eventually decided in their favour at the Supreme Court.
The issue has come to the fore again this week, to more huge controversy - and a lot of Cork people are involved, Taoiseach Micheál Martin in particular.
“Our industry is simply apoplectic,” was the response when, at the end of August, an email from the Department of the Marine arrived in the offices of all the country’s fishing organisations, including the Castletownbere-based ISWFPO.
It informed them that two days before, on August 26, the Taoiseach, acting as Minister for the Marine, had signed the new Statutory Instrument S.I. No. 318 of 2020 - European Union (Common Fisheries Policy) (Point System) Regulations 2020. This reintroduced the hugely controversial penalty points system.
Mr Martin took marine responsibilities under his control after the resignation of former Minster Dara Calleary because of the ‘Golfgate’ controversy.
As well as the State’s legal failure to get the system through the courts, another Corkman - former Fine Gael Marine Minister Michael Creed - had tried to get penalty points legislation through the Dáil, but was voted down. That was the first time in the history of the Dáil that a government was defeated on a Statutory Instrument issue.
“Fianna Fáil were very vocal in their condemnation of Minister Creed’s attempts to introduce this flawed legislation as late as September 2019,” the Irish South and West said.
“Micheál Martin, as leader of the opposition, put forward a motion to overturn the signing into law of a previous Statutory Instrument to introduce penalty points. Our members are dismayed by what he has done. We would like him to explain his contrary action now.”
There is no opposition within the industry to the necessity for a penalty points system. It is required under European Union CFP regulations. What the industry says is at issue are provisions which limit the making of appeals against charges to the High Court, an expensive process. If a prosecuted fisherman is found innocent of the charges the State, through the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority which is to administer the system, would still impose penalty points on his licence.
Penalty points can remain on a vessel’s licence, even if sold. The fishing industry says this is a lifetime penalty and that no other citizens in Ireland are subjected to a similar situation.
The issue was raised with local Fianna Fáil TD, Christopher O’Sullivan as anger mounted in Castletownbere and other fishing ports around the south. Deputy O’Sullivan, according to the ISWFPO agreed to put their criticism to the Taoiseach and ask him to meet the industry.
South-West based Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard was also contacted and pledged support for a meeting with the Taoiseach.
A government source said fishermen who did not break the regulations had nothing to fear from the penalty points system.
The country’s three other major fish producer organisations, the Irish FPO, Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation and the Irish South and East FPO joined with the Irish South and West as strong criticism of the Taoiseach came from fishing organisations all over the country.
The ‘Golfgate’ controversy was at its height and former EU Commissioner Phil Hogan resigned on the day the Taoiseach signed the new order. The Marine Department did not send its email to fishing organisations announcing the signing until two days later.
“There was absolutely no discussion with the industry, despite all the previous controversy,” said the ISWFPO.
The IFPO suggested: “We can only presume that An Taoiseach has been blindsided by his officials.”
At the time of writing it was expected the Taoiseach would meet with the country’s fishing representative organisations about the issue.