Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Alan McCulla, Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

Today’s final evidence session is with Mr Alan McCulla, the chief executive of the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd (ANIFPO). Good afternoon; you are very welcome.

Mr Alan McCulla (Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation Ltd):

Thank you, Chairperson.

The Chairperson:

I apologise for the hiccup that we had some weeks ago when we disturbed your afternoon at the Balmoral show.

Mr McCulla:

I was going to apologise to you for the crossed wires. I was glad that some people were able to get away early to get to Balmoral.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your understanding. It was just one of those things that can never be explained properly. However, you are here today and you are very welcome. We received your written submission, and today’s session will be recorded by Hansard for inclusion in our inquiry report. I invite you to make a brief opening statement after which members will have an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr McCulla:

I know that some members of the Committee are familiar to some degree with Northern Ireland’s fishing industry. I recognise a few faces here, but I will start off with a few basic facts for those of you who are not so familiar with it.

Our industry employs approximately 1,200 people who are concentrated in three communities around the coast of Northern Ireland, namely, Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie. The industry contributes around £100 million per annum to the local economy. It receives no production subsidies whatsoever from Europe, and it is 100% owned by local businessmen and businesswomen. Some people might say that fishermen are always complaining, and perhaps we are like our colleagues in the agriculture sector in that respect. People might say that if Alan McCulla is not complaining about market prices, he is complaining about the price of fuel; if he is not complaining about the price of fuel, he is complaining about the lack of quota; and, if he is not complaining about the lack of quota, he is complaining about the lack of days at sea. Nevertheless, I am here today to represent an industry which, even in the midst of a recession when so many jobs are being lost throughout the Province, wants to send a loud and clear message to Europe, Westminster and Stormont: give us a chance guys, and we will help the Province to get through the recession. We just want to get out there and do the work.

The fact is that the European Union is restricting local fishermen in respect of not only the number of days that they work but the number of days that they spend getting to their work. I do not know of any other local industry on which the Government or the EU place restrictions on the amount of time that people can work. Of course, the argument is that all the restrictions are designed to protect what the public are encouraged to perceive as overfished and vulnerable fish stocks, most notably cod. Cod steals the headlines, but it accounts for only around 5% of all the demersal fish and shellfish that are landed into Northern Ireland. Our most important fish is nephrops, or Dublin Bay prawns, which, according to scientists, is fished well within safe biological limits. This year, for the first time, saw the creation of a new quota for haddock in the Irish Sea, which reflected the abundance of that fish in our waters. A more traditional species has been herring, and fisheries scientists agree that the management restrictions that were in place for it for many years could be eased. Therefore, the media sometimes portray the situation as being all doom and gloom, but it is not. That is not to say that we do not have problems, but I suggest that the main problem is not to do with fish stocks in our case; the main problem is with the policy that emanates from Brussels, which is known as the common fisheries policy (CFP). It has increasingly directed Northern Ireland’s fishery policy since the UK joined the EEC all those years ago.

The European Commission recently launched a review of the common fisheries policy, and after 30 years of its centralised top-down management, the European Commission has finally said that its policy has been a failure. There was a cry of relief from the fishing industry right across the UK and Ireland, because we have been telling them for years that it has been a failure.

The new common fisheries policy on which we have just embarked on negotiations is scheduled to be agreed during 2012. If most fishermen here had their way, the UK would withdraw from the common fisheries policy — that would be the best thing that could happen. However, regrettably, the political reality today suggests that that is unlikely to happen. Therefore, it is vital that, during the next two and a half years, the Northern Ireland team does its utmost at member state level and EU level to ensure that we achieve the best possible outcome for the local fishing industry, or what remains of it, in three years’ time. I use the word “remains” intentionally. The fishing industry has weathered many storms, as some members around the table will know. It has come through many recessions, yet, in my opinion, the challenges that face us today represent totally uncharted waters — excuse the puns — and the perfect storm faces the fishing industry.

Just to exemplify that, I will return to restrictions on days at sea. Perhaps the terms were invented elsewhere, but, this year, as the number of days at sea was increasingly squeezed, the UK fisheries department quantitively eased the number of days that were issued to UK fishermen: in other words, it invented extra days above and beyond what Europe had allocated to the local fleet. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s figures tell us that if it had issued the fishing fleet with the actual number of days that Europe had given the UK, each local trawler would have been given between 90 and 120 days for the entire year.

Think about that figure, Mr Chairman: a typical fishing vessel on the County Down coast works for an average of 40 weeks each year; during the other 12 weeks it undergoes repairs or may be in harbour because of bad weather. The calculation is easy: divide 90 or 120 by 40 weeks. Basically, fishing-vessel owners have been told that not only can they work only two or three days a week, but they spend that time going to work. I know of no other business asked to work in such an environment.

Worse still, Europe has directed that over the next two years, the number of days will be reduced by 25%. As I said earlier, that is designed to recover cod stock, which comprises no more than 5% of all the fish and shellfish landed into Northern Ireland. Therefore, as a result, every part of the fleet and shore industries, such as processors, et cetera, will suffer. Until we reach the utopia of the new CFP in 2012, we must survive the policies that are implemented from Brussels, Westminster — and Stormont.

The days-at-sea regulation is just one example of how EU policy affects local business. In the run-up to last week’s European Parliament election we heard that approximately 75% of our rules now emanate from Brussels; however, about 100% of the rules with which the fishing industry must comply emanate from Brussels.

I read the Committee’s website. Forgive me, Chairman, if I quote part of a press release that you issued in July 2008, when the Committee started its inquiry. It said:

“It is essential that the Northern Ireland Assembly’s role in Europe is developed and established. There is much that can be achieved by promoting Northern Ireland, its industries and its skills. To achieve this, the Committee aims to reach satisfactory conclusions to European policy issues for the people of Northern Ireland.”

I echo that sentiment. I suggest that we all have a challenge, certainly as far as fishing is concerned.

On 19 December 2008, when the days-at-sea regulation was agreed, Northern Ireland was ably represented at negotiations by Conor Murphy. When the deal was done, Mr Murphy made it clear that he disagreed with the regulation because it would have serious consequences for the local fishing industry. Of course, we applauded the Minister for his stance at that time and continue to do so now.

On 2 December 2008, the First Minister led a delegation to London to meet the Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and to lobby him in advance of the December Fisheries Council on issues such as quota allocations and days at sea. He also argued strongly on behalf of Northern Ireland’s fishing industry.

In the week before Christmas 2008, the Minister with responsibility for the fishing industry, Michelle Gildernew, led the Northern Ireland team, and, given political realities, she secured the best possible deal for Northern Ireland’s fishermen at the time.

There is cross-party support for the industry. However, it is difficult to persuade fishermen and, indeed, fish processors of that when their businesses are under threat from unworkable EU legislation, which, much of the time, is gold-plated by another member state — the UK — and possibly gold-plated even further by the Northern Ireland Administration.

Therein lies another problem: the UK is, of course, the member state. Therefore, before we can convince the Commission in Brussels of Northern Ireland’s case, we must convince the Whitehall authorities. It has been clear to us for some time that the efforts of the governing parties at Westminster are made on behalf of the communities out of which most boats operate. Therefore, I am sorry to report, the Irish Sea plays second fiddle to the North Sea and other waters.

What does the future hold for the fishing industry? How can we achieve the Committee’s aspirations as stated by you, Chairman? First, in the absence of a withdrawal from the common fisheries policy, regionalisation is on the agenda; it must be supported instead of the top-down approach that has failed for the past 30 years. Talk to the hands-on guys who are at sea every day and adopt a bottom-up approach and devolve responsibility back to people at the grassroots.

The Northern Ireland Assembly needs to co-ordinate more closely with all our representatives in Brussels and London to ensure that specific Northern Irish cases are not sidelined. I am sorry to say that, in my experience, despite the efforts of everyone — all our politicians and fishing industry representatives — our efforts are being sidelined. We need to develop alliances with Parliaments in the UK and in other parts of Europe.

I have given this some thought and suggest that the Assembly explore with the fishing industry, and with others, ways of securing improved and regular access to the institutions in Brussels. As I said, fishermen’s representatives have enjoyed the visits to Brussels and Strasbourg to meet the Commission and other parliamentarians; however, policy is not formed through infrequent visits but through persistent lobbying. Home-grown industries such as ours do not have the resources, unlike similar industries in other parts of Europe, to be in Brussels every day lobbying the Commission and Parliament to get the job done.

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to talk about this. I am sorry, although the Committee may not be, that I do not have the time to go on and on about other aspects of the EU fisheries policy that I could discuss. However, I have spoken to those around the table and to other local politicians, and I believe that when people start looking at the issues they will realise that no other business in the UK or Ireland is more greatly affected by EU policy than the fishing industry. The fishing industry is home-grown and 100% owned by Northern Irish interests, and we must protect it.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Mr McCulla, for your very forthright presentation. I would like to pick up on a couple of points. You stressed the need to develop alliances, particularly with other regions of the UK and Europe. What progress has your organisation made on that? Have you any suggestions on what the Northern Ireland Assembly can do?

DARD has an office as a part of the Northern Ireland Bureau in Brussels. Are you aware of any representations that it has made? Are officials engaged directly and permanently in representing the views of your industry? Does that help the industry?

Mr McCulla:

We have alliances with other parts of the UK, Ireland and beyond. The industry in Northern Ireland equates to 4% or 5% of the UK’s fishing industry. It is therefore in the minority, and we have had to build alliances with fishermen in other parts of the UK through the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations. We have alliances, believe it or not, through some European institutions with fishermen in other parts of Europe, most notably in the Republic of Ireland. During the last review of the common fisheries policy, the European Commission launched regional advisory committees, and we play an active part in the regional advisory committee that covers the Irish Sea. The two big players in that area are fishermen from Northern Ireland and from the Republic of Ireland. Those alliances are in place and we use them.

In answer to your second question, I suggest that we need to go a stage further. I have spoken to colleagues in other parts of Europe; the Netherlands, for example. Their industry is much larger than ours, and it employs someone in Brussels full time to represent it and lobby for it to get the interests of Dutch fishermen across to the Commission. Local fishermen, who are familiar with the issues that the Dutch fishermen lobby on, have the perception that because the Dutch fishermen are so active on behalf of their industry they get more or less what they want.

DARD has an office in Europe. As some of your colleagues know, I do not often jump to the defence of DARD, but I will do so on this occasion. Because of cutbacks, the fisheries team is small, and it has been under severe pressure in the past few months. It has not been under as much pressure as my colleagues and I have been — we seem to be fighting fires on every front —but it is under pressure nonetheless. DARD’s office does its job, but since it represents Government and not the industry, it does not give number-one priority to the interests of the industry.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you, Alan. The last time we met was in your salubrious offices in Kilkeel. I also remember that Francie Molloy and I met you at the airport in Brussels when we were working on the inquiry into EU issues. You were returning from lobbying, and we were going there to learn how we might improve lobbying.

How vital is it that the final negotiations are completed for what is to replace the common fisheries policy? On Tuesday 26 May 2009, I asked Minister Gildernew a question in the Chamber when she came back from Brussels, and she spoke about regionalisation of the fishing industry. How important is that as a solution rather than focusing on Westminster?

Mr McCulla:

During the previous review, Mr Shannon, the Fisheries Council decided to use regional advisory councils. It said that if the regional advisory councils proved their maturity, it would be happy to return some responsibility to fishermen. The Fisheries Council seems to be taking that direction in the current review of the common fisheries policy.

The cynics and sceptics among us said that the commission and others will be loath to give up any of their empire and asked how much of their decision making would be devolved to the regional advisory councils. If the industry is to have a future after 2013, it is vital that we move in that direction; that must be at the top of the agenda if we are not to withdraw and start afresh.

I had a meeting today with the processing industry, and my challenge and that of the entire industry, whether at sea or onshore, is to get from 10 June 2009 to the utopia about which the commission is talking and which is to begin on 1 January 2013. If someone were to tell you guys that you were allowed to work two days a week and that your wages would be based on that —

The Chairperson:

Steady, now.

Mr McCulla:

I could not do it. The commission has given a guarantee of a 25% cut next year and 25% cut in the following year. What other jobs face that?

Mr Shannon:

Local fishermen tell us that the fish are there and that, as you pointed out, Alan, one cannot fish all the fish in the sea. Yet our fishermen are restricted; all they want to do is fish.

Alan and the Chairman mentioned the role that the Assembly might play in replacing the common fisheries policy, and t he Scottish Parliament has made fishing one of its top four issues. Would the Assembly making fishing a priority help the industry? As your presentation says, the discussion at Westminster is all about the North Sea not the Irish Sea. That point is often lost. Should the Assembly prioritise the fishing industry as a major sector?

Mr McCulla:

That would be a step in the right direction. As I said, in early December of last year the First Minister led a delegation to London, where we had a very good meeting. The Northern Ireland team played its card really well, and Michelle Gildernew does the same with her colleagues in Dublin. For Dublin, Ireland’s national interest comes first, and one cannot blame the officials there for that. The national interests of the UK are Westminster’s focus, but, in reality, Northern Ireland is left on the side. I feel unloved as a fishing-industry representative. Nobody likes me south of the border, and nobody likes me on the other side of the Irish Sea. Anything that can get the agenda of our fishing industry further up the agenda of Brussels is to be welcomed.

Mr Shannon:

We made the point at the inquiry that fishing is important. How could the role of our three new MEPs be improved so that they can help the fishing industry here to gain influence in Brussels?

Mr McCulla:

The answer to that question has still to be developed. All member states in Europe have permanent representation in Brussels. Northern Ireland should have permanent representation in Brussels that is not comprised of officials but of experts and people who know what is happening.

Mrs Long:

Thank you for your presentation. As part of our work we are looking at how and when we engage with Europe. You raised concerns about the implementation of European policy, but have you any views about when we engage with Europe? We seem to be engaging when decisions have already been taken, and we then negotiate about the implementation of those decisions. Have you views on that and on how the Assembly can put an early-warning system in place so that we are aware of what is being considered in Europe as well as what is being done?

Mr McCulla:

That was a very good question, and I thank you for it. As Mr Shannon pointed out, our Minister, Michelle Gildernew, was in Brussels at the beginning of last week at the last EU Fisheries Council, after which she had a bilateral meeting with the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Mr Borg. We are right in there when the arguments are being made. However, when decisions are being made around the council table, we have one vote: the UK vote, which is cast by the DEFRA Minister in Whitehall. Unfortunately, my perception is that, despite the good work of our Ministers, the Northern Ireland angle is swept aside much of the time.

Michelle Gildernew is very forthright in her views — and thank goodness for that — but we need to get into the heart of the Commission where policy is formulated. It is not good enough to do that now, as the negotiations have already commenced on the common fisheries policy; we need to get in there beforehand to talk to the commissioners to help to formulate their view before they put it down on paper.

Mrs Long:

Are there other places in Europe with common cause on that issue? You said that there is tension between Northern Ireland’s view on fisheries and the UK view that is often given on our behalf. Are there other regions of Europe that share a similar perspective to Northern Ireland, and could the Assembly facilitate a mechanism to build those alliances to get our agenda on the table through means other than the official mechanisms?

Mr McCulla:

We do not even have to go beyond the UK and Ireland. Despite what I said — and I am not contradicting myself — many fishermen on the west coast of Scotland have similar opinions to fishermen here.

Many fishermen along the east coast of Ireland who fish next door to boats from Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie will have very similar views to our fishermen. However, the views of our fishermen are lost in Dublin, Edinburgh or London when it comes to the big picture. We have identified allies in Europe through the regional advisory committees; however, the fishing industry has a similar problem to other industries: although the headlines may be the same, the detail may be very different. I do not know whether that answers your question.

Mrs Long:

It does.

Mr Elliott:

I will be brief because I have heard a fair bit of the information before. Is lobbying required at Brussels and Westminster? I was with you when you met the commissioner 18 months ago at the heart of where the decision was being made; however, we rely on the UK Government to make Northern Ireland’s case. Are we lobbying the Westminster Government enough? If the Westminster Government do not push the case for the Northern Ireland fishermen, it is unlikely to be heard in Brussels either.

Secondly, you said that if your industry was allowed a relatively free hand you could help to bring the economy out of recession. What would you require to do that.

Mr McCulla:

Chair, if you do not mind I will answer Mr Elliott’s questions in reverse order. I do not think that I said that the industry should be given a free hand; I do not propose casting off the ropes and going for it. The fishing industry, like any industry, needs to be managed, and the fishermen that I represent would agree that they need to be managed. They do not want to act as modern-day pirates and pillage the waters of every last fish that swims past. The guys have come up with practical measures that they believe would make a difference.

To answer Mr Elliott’s first question about representation, we need to up the ante in Brussels and in Westminster. I mean no criticism of the efforts of Assembly Members, Ministers, MPs or MEPs, but the problem that you good people have is that we arrived in Brussels for a day and we meet the Commissioner. Although it is super that we have access to the top, we all know that the groundwork has been done in the weeks and months before that and that it is the people behind the Commissioner who formulate opinions and views. Making our case to those people would do us much more good than a brief one-day visit.

Mr Molloy:

The fact is that the link with Westminster is a problem and it has been part of the problem all along. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

Order. Please avoid the penalty kicks.

Mr Molloy:

The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Irish Government have worked at building up support for their fleets, and our fishing fleet should try to build its influence at Westminster to gain support. You suggest that it would help our fishing industry to have someone from here in Brussels. During our inquiry we were told that facilities exist to relocate people from the Civil Service, the universities and business to Brussels. The Irish Government have been successful in extending their influence beyond their strength. Have you attempted to place a representative in Brussels?

Mr McCulla:

We have not; I was not aware that such a facility exists. That is the kind of idea that must be developed. I mentioned the Dutch, whose industry can afford to have someone permanently or semi-permanently in the heart of Brussels to help to formulate policies before they appear in Green Papers. That is the sort of idea that I would like to develop.

With respect to your first point, as a fishing-industry representative, whether in Westminster, Dáil Éireann or wherever, nobody loves me.

Ms Anderson:

We do.

Mr Shannon:

Somebody loves you. [Laughter.]

Mr Molloy:

With respect to building such a structure and lobbying in Westminster, during this inquiry it emerged that, at various stages, there seems to have been more facilitating by and consultation with the Northern Ireland Office than with the Assembly, and that is a problem. We have a job to do to build-up our influence so that we might help before the process starts. At several meetings with the Agriculture Committee Michelle Gildernew stressed the importance of building personal links with the Commission to influence it at an early stage. However, tying in others should be part and parcel of that exercise as well.

Mr McCulla:

We have met Commission officials in Brussels; Mr Shannon and Mr Elliott mentioned two such occasions, and Mr Molloy has been there as well. However, when attempting to explain to Commission officials the problems that fishermen in Northern Ireland face, it is easy to become confused by their replies. They express sympathy and say that they did not know about our problems, which are not with them, the nice people in Brussels; on the contrary, they say that our problems are with the bad people in London, Dublin or Belfast. That is confusing because, on the one hand, officials here blame Brussels, but, on the other, Brussels blames them. Along with the fishermen, I am caught in the middle, and we do not know where we are going wrong.

The Chairperson:

That completes the questions. Thank you for your presentation, which was, as usual, forthright. You may contact us if you wish to provide any additional information, and if we require anything we will seek you out. Thank you for your attendance.

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