Ireland’s fishermen and farmers fight Brexit fallout
It was sort of a surf and turf week in Ireland. We also had to worry about the implosion of the Democratic Unionist Party and the spread of the Delta variant, and whether the restrictions on bars and restaurants here could finally be lifted next week.
But it was the fishermen and farmers here who made headlines last week as they bitterly complained about what the EU was doing to them.
They are also not happy with the Irish government, which they say does not stand up for them. The issues for our fishermen and our farmers are of course different, but they go back to the same roots, as we will explain in a moment.
First the fishermen. In the middle of last week, a huge flotilla of fishing boats sailed up the Liffey into Dublin city center to protest what our fishermen see as a crisis in their lives. Because of Covid, the Dáil was sitting in the Riverside Convention Center that day so fishermen could make their arguments directly to politicians.
It was the most picturesque event we have seen here in a long time. Trawlers, large and small, came from all over the coast. They didn’t completely block access to Dublin Port but they filled the river, and for a while nothing else seemed to be moving.
What prompted the protest is the fishing part of the Brexit deal the EU has with the UK and which is now entering into force. This means that the amount of fish that EU vessels (including Irish trawlers) can catch in UK waters has been drastically reduced. Irish fishermen claim that this country took the biggest blow, much bigger proportionately than that taken by France or Spain, for example.
Thanks to Covid, which has closed restaurants across Europe for a year or more, Ireland’s fish exports had already been decimated, fishermen said. So this is a double blow for them which they believe will destroy the Irish fishing industry. They say their income will be cut by more than half, making many of our trawlers unsustainable.
Like our own waters, the seas around Britain are fertile fishing grounds. Many Irish trawlers on the east and south coasts take up to half of their annual catch of shrimp, mackerel and other fish.
But because of the Brexit deal, that will be reduced. It also means that more trawlers from other EU countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain (which have fished extensively in their own waters) will fish much more in the waters. Irish waters than in UK waters.
This is already a problem, say Irish fishermen, because under the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy these countries have the right to fish alongside our boats in Irish waters and they have far more quotas. important than Ireland. They do this on an industrial scale, using huge trawlers much bigger than most Irish boats.
Considering the small size of the Irish Navy, the protection we can offer the Irish fishing industry is minimal. It is claimed that foreign vessels routinely flout the rules about where they can fish, how much they catch and the methods they use. And it is likely to get even worse when these boats are limited in what they can fish in UK waters and focus more on Irish waters.
The UK fishing industry represents only a tiny fraction of the overall UK economy. But it became a huge problem in the Brexit campaign and a key part of Boris Johnson’s chauvinistic claim that the UK would ‘take back control’.
The result, as we have said, is that the Brexit deal now means that the amount of fish that EU boats can catch in UK waters has been drastically reduced. And the country most affected is Ireland.
But it’s not just the fallout from Brexit that is the difficulty. The roots of the global fishing problem here go back to 1973, when Ireland joined the EU (then called the EEC).
The main focus at the time was to take care of Irish agriculture, a much larger part of our economy than the fishing here. So we gave much more than we should have had on fisheries to get as much as we could for agriculture from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
The basic principle of the Common Fisheries Policy is that all EU vessels must have access to fish in all EU waters, including the surrounding territorial waters of each member country. When the fishing shares were negotiated, they were decided mainly on the size of each country – large fishing countries like France and Spain got the most and small countries like Ireland got the most. the least. At the time, that didn’t seem to matter much because all of the focus was on agriculture.
Various attempts have been made over the years to change this, but the basic problem remains. This was summed up by one of the signs on the trawlers during the protest last week. He said: “Ireland owns 22 percent of EU waters. Ireland gets 3 percent of the fish caught in EU waters.”
Another sign on fish in Irish territorial waters made the same point. “Anglerfish – Ireland gets 8pc, France gets 59pc. Haddock – Ireland gets 22pc, France gets 67pc. Hake – Ireland gets 6pc, Spain gets 29pc, France gets 45pc. Sole – Ireland gets 3pc, Belgium gets 62pc. Plaice – Ireland gets 13 percent, France gets 42 percent, Belgium gets 23 percent. ” Etc.
It bears repeating that these overwhelming numbers relate to fish in Irish waters. No wonder Irish fishermen are so angry. And now the fallout from Brexit will add even more to their legitimate sense of grievance.
As we said above, it was not just the fishermen here who took up arms last week. Irish farmers, despite everything they have gained under the CAP, are also furious. This is due to the agreement reached in the EU last week on reforming the CAP to bring it more in line with the broader EU policy on climate change and the environment.
The CAP absorbs around a third of the EU’s total annual budget and the numbers involved are huge. Most of the money goes to agricultural subsidies, in particular the system of direct payments to farmers.
The reform deal, which was reached after several years of difficult negotiations, sets out how the nearly € 400 billion – that’s billions, not millions – of CAP agricultural finance will be spent over the next five years.
So far, the deal is tentative, but unlikely to change that much given the level of support it receives. There is general agreement across Europe that the CAP needs to be reformed in order to reduce the environmental impact of intensive agriculture and reduce emissions from the sector which are a major contributor to climate change.
The fundamental aim is to move the CAP money from large-scale intensive agriculture to more nature-friendly agriculture and in doing so reduce the current 10% of greenhouse gases in the EU. emitted by agriculture (in Ireland, agriculture produces 35% of!).
There will be more money for small family farms, paying these farmers more to be stewards of the land, the environment and biodiversity, rather than always trying to maximize production with the use of chemicals and fertilizers. The agreement will require 20% of all CAP money in 2023 to be spent on “eco-programs” that protect the environment, and will increase to 25% in 2025.
Examples of relevance to Ireland might include restoring wetlands to absorb carbon, returning large areas to forestry and wilderness, as well as supporting organic farming. All of this may sound virtuous to city dwellers, but from Ireland’s point of view, it is very problematic.
This is because agriculture represents a proportionately much larger part of our economy and a large part of our production, in dairy products and beef, comes from medium-sized and larger farms that are operated in a very large way. intensive. These farmers also receive a large part of the direct payments and undertake changes that will severely affect their incomes.
It is therefore not surprising that the Irish Farmers Association last week called the EU deal a “bad deal” for Irish farmers. “The combined effects of the proposal will decimate a cohort of farmers in Ireland,” the group said.
This reaction is not good news for the government, which will be under intense pressure from farmers in the coming months to work to relax the interim agreement. For our farmers, just like our fishermen, it’s a double whammy, the other part being the impact on Irish agricultural exports to Britain after Brexit.
For our farmers, however, it will likely be a losing battle. Change has to come, although the level of impact here will be severe compared to most other EU countries.
The solution – shifting to less intensive farming – is possible, as we can see in the small but growing organic farming sector here. But it requires a change in national mindset, an acceptance of lower income levels and a different way of life on the farms.
This is a huge subject, one that we will come back to here in the future. The 40 shades of green will take on a whole new meaning.
* This column first appeared in the June 30 edition of the weekly Irish Voice, sister publication of IrishCentral.