Although the starting gun for Brexit was only triggered on Thursday (March 30th), UK/EU divorce proceedings already feel like they have been going on for ages. There has been so much hot air, posturing and good old-fashioned lies – now with an unhealthy dose of sulphur added to the mix as the estranged couple finally gets down to the actual negotiations – it’s certainly going to be a long two years.
That same day in Brussels, Ireland South MEP Liadh Ni Riadh hosted a fisheries delegation in the European Parliament. MEPs from across Europe joined Ms Ní Riada along with representatives from the Irish and European fishing industries to discuss small-scale fisheries.
Of all the groups likely to feel the negative impact of increased trade barriers and renewed borders that Brexit will bring, small-scale fishermen feature near the very top of the list.
The situation for Irish fisherman was already difficult. It was the status quo that drove their English equivalents to become leading figures in the Leave campaign and Irish fishermen have been subject to the same conditions. We don’t know what will unfold over the course of the Brexit negotiations but it’s very difficult to see an improvement in their lot. The likeliest scenario, should the UK achieve the hard brexit its government seems to crave, would see a massive reduction in EU waters but only a small reduction in fishing effort.
The impact on Irish Fisheries would be considerable. Ms Ní Riada painted it in no uncertain terms: “If Britain exercises full control of its Exclusive Economic Zone it could be the end of the Irish fishing industry as we know it unless the concept of “Relative Stability” is revised.”
Relative Stability, the principle that ensures catches are divided between Member States according to the amounts they were fishing in the 1970s is a cornerstone of the Common Fisheries Policy. Member state politics and a less than fastidious approach to bookkeeping may have played against Ireland in the original quota allocation. Certainly there seems to be a reasonable argument for Relative Stability to be looked at during or more likely after this process given the expected changes. Whether this actually happens is another matter as it would open up claims from other countries also wanting an improved quota allocation.
Brexit will have widespread and far-reaching consequences and in the meantime we are set to have years of uncertainty. These are tough times for any business. For small-scale Irish fisheries this will be an industry-defining time and one throughout which it will be difficult to plan for future. Simple questions have become hard to answer – How do you attract the next generation of fishermen to an industry facing such a challenge?
One thing is certain though: For Irish fishermen to have their best chance of strengthening their industry, their voices need to be heard loud and clear at every twist and turn of these negotiations. In very real terms, their livelihoods and the future of the whole industry is at stake.