I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. If I can engage the attention of Dail Éireann for a moment about so mundane a matter as fish, I would ask them to take under consideration the Second Stage of the Sea Fisheries Bill, 1950, their assent to which I now respectfully request. I thought it would be for the convenience of Deputies if, when this Bill was circulated, I supplied them with what in the vernacular is described as a White Paper, and in that White Paper I have tried to make manifest the salient features of the proposed legislation.
I would like, however, if I could, to crystallise in a few sentences the fundamental principle underlying this Bill. The purpose of the Government is quite deliberately to reserve the domestic fish market for the inshore fishermen. Deputies are no doubt aware that maximum wholesale and retail prices for fish obtain in this country. I would ask Deputies to note that these were maximum prices, and that these maximum prices are admittedly higher than would be justified from the consumer's point of view if nothing but the legitimate interest of the consumer was present to the Government's mind. If it was not the Government's purpose to protect and foster the inshore fishermen, the Government would not ask the consumer to accept maximum prices on the scale at present fixed but it is in order to ensure that the inshore fishermen on our north-west, west, south-west and, indeed, in certain areas on our east coast, would be able to get from their fishing industry a reasonable standard of living that we have asked the consuming public, with their eyes wide open, to consent to paying a higher price for fish than they would be required to pay if they had free access to the world markets in Grimsby and other British ports, and could get fish at the lowest price which competition would produce. I think that, given the assurance that we can purchase by this device stability and a very modest prosperity for the fishing community in our country, we are getting very good value for it.
We have carried on to date under the existing legislation, and I want to make this clear: It has become fashionable in certain areas to suggest that the Sea Fisheries Association to date has achieved nothing, that it has made a mess of the whole business, and that the purpose of this legislation is to end something which has completely failed of its purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Sea Fisheries Association over the last ten or 12 years has done admirable work with the resources at its disposal, and one of the most gratifying features of the present situation is that, six years after the conclusion of the world war, the sea fishermen in the great majority of cases have succeeded in paying regularly the instalments due on their boats and gear and, when you compare that situation with the situation that obtained after the 1914-18 war, when, three or four years after the war was over, practically every fisherman along our coast was bankrupt and could not pay the instalments on his boats and the boats were pulled up on the beach rotting, the Sea Fisheries Association has much reason to be proud of its work.
I do not want to go to the other extreme and to claim that the Sea Fisheries Association has been attended in all it sought to do by unqualified success and triumph. It has not but, considering the resources it disposed of, it did a very good job. Now we want to go a step further. We want to put the fishing industry on a permanent basis and we want to embark on a programme of expansion.
What I want the House to understand is this: There are two bases on which we might found expansion. One is, to build up a fishing industry analogous to the Icelandic, the Scandinavian or the British sea-fishing industry. The other is to build up a fishing industry on the basis of our own inshore fishermen, primarily founded on the domestic demand for fish. I am perfectly convinced that if our territory and market are to be thrown open to unrestricted exploitation by steam trawling companies we may get cheap fish but the inshore fishermen will disappear for ever from our society. So long as I am Minister for Fisheries, that will not be allowed to come to pass.
I am deliberately asking the House to take measures, through the medium of this Bill, to ensure that that will not come to pass and that we shall seek an adequate supply of demersal fish for the domestic market at prices slightly higher than may rule in the world market, but on terms which will ensure for our inshore fishermen a guarantee of a permanent and stable livelihood. Inevitably, when proposals of this kind are formulated the variety of interests concerned in the fish trade lose no time to make their claims for consideration and the wholesale fish merchants have not been backward in putting forward what they conceive to be their claims to rights and their representations have been very welcome.
Now my attitude in regard to this Bill, and one of the reasons why its appearance has been somewhat tardy, for I forecast its appearance three years ago, is that I have a chronic disinclination to push my neighbours about and I sought to draft this Bill in a way which would enable the fundamental purpose to be achieved, which was the protection of the inshore fishermen, without treading on other people's toes in so far as I could avoid it. Therefore, the scheme of the Bill is that the inshore fishermen would catch the fish, the Sea Fisheries Association would buy it from them and pass it into the retail trade, through the established channels of the fish wholesale trade which at present exists. I do not want to become involved in the wholesale fish trade. I do not want to become involved in the retail fish trade. I do not want the Sea Fisheries Association to have the necessity thrust upon them to do any more than to deal with the inshore fishermen with regard to boats, gear and so forth, to provide the inshore fishermen with a guaranteed market for their catch and that done, to pass it into the ordinary channels of trade and in that way allow it to be marketed in the ordinary way. But I do not want to divest myself of the ability to follow the fish into the wholesale market, or further if need be, should it transpire that any combination sought to array themselves against the overriding interest of the inshore fishermen, for whom I am asking Oireachtas Éireann to reserve the domestic market. I think the House ought to know this though.
One of the complications that has arisen is that because a price level was sanctioned in the domestic market for fish, superior to or higher than that obtaining in the world market, a number of fish wholesalers legitimately aspired to make hay while the sun shone. Some of them had trawlers prior to 1948. Others proceeded to acquire large boats and put them to sea. Their procedure was to land the fish catch on to a bigger boat. Some of them who had retail shops liked to go through the catch, picking out the brill, the turbot, the sole and other prime fish, send it on to their retail shops, and send the balance of the catch to the wholesale market. Others, having no retail shops themselves, but having large wholesale businesses, liked to bring the prime part of their boat catch to their own wholesale stores, thus ensuring that vis-a-vis anybody else, they had a regular supply of prime fish while others might or might not, as circumstances allowed. They feel a certain sense of grievance that they are not to be facilitated in continuing to trade on that basis. They feel it a grievance that they cannot go on bringing in their fish and securing for themselves that preferential position.
The reason that they cannot be facilitated in continuing in that direction is that if they claimed that right and secured it, every fish wholesaler would do the same until ultimately we would have a situation in which there would be no market for the inshore fish and every fellow who is in the wholesale trade, and perhaps in the retail trade, will put his own boats to sea and swipe the profitable market, made profitable, remember, by the maximum prices authorised by the Government because it was assumed that the fish was going to be marketed on behalf of the inshore fishermen. What the House has to consider is this: If the proprietors of the fishing fleets want freedom to land fish here for their own account, let them be free to do it but let world prices rule. If you accept that view, that is the end of the inshore fishermen, but if anybody is to have that right, then all must have it. The alternative is, therefore—and this is what I am asking Oireachtas Éireann to say—that the only people who may land fish for sale and consumption on the domestic fish market of Ireland are the inshore fishermen per se or through their co-operative, the Sea Fisheries Association.
If we accept that principle, then it becomes the duty of the Sea Fisheries Association, acting on behalf of the inshore fishermen, to undertake to make available to every fish wholesaler who wants it, an ample supply of all varieties of fish in so far as circumstances will allow, wherever and whenever he requires it. It is my intention, having fulfilled that duty, and having made the fish available, that the fish wholesaler should then be free to take it to the market and pass it on for consumption through the ordinary channels of trade. I am sure the House will agree with me that if we create deliberately a price structure in this country designed to confer some benefit and advantage on inshore fishermen, we cannot, and will not, permit large mercantile interests to muscle in on that perfect situation, designed for the inshore fishermen, with the inevitable result that the inshore fishermen would disappear and the musclers-in would be claiming to get from the Irish fish consumer the prices envisaged for the benefit of the inshore fishermen but which are now yielding profits to the Irish counterpart of the Grimsby or Yarmouth trawler.
I gather, from the general reaction to the White Paper circulated with the Bill, that the substance of this measure is not of a highly contentious nature. I approach this problem on the assumption that, in regard to fundamentals in any case, we are all of one mind. When I speak of fundamentals I mean that we are all primarily concerned with the welfare of the inshore fishermen. That is the assumption that I am proceeding on. I gladly join issue with anyone who puts the interests of the trawler owners against the interests of the inshore fishermen. If that view be advanced I will challenge it and gladly contest it. If we are agreed in principle, it merely becomes a matter of the most effective machinery to realise our common end. If I am vouchsafed advice and assistance by other Deputies who are experienced in these fishery matters I will welcome it. If there is any suggestion any Deputy on any side of the House can make to me to improve these proposals for the better realisation of that common end, I will gladly welcome it.
I could extend at great length my introductory observations by solemnly recapitulating the contents of the White Paper. I mean no discourtesy to the House if I proceed on the basis that the contents of the White Paper may be taken as read. I would invite Deputies, if they are concerned in the matter, to refresh their memories perhaps as to the background of the whole fish business of this country by referring them to the report of the sea and inland fisheries for the year ending 1949, in which a good deal of valuable statistical material is available for the guidance of Deputies who may wish to review the problem generally. I am at the disposal of the House to answer any specific queries which Deputies may wish to address to me, but I forbear from unnecessarily expanding my introductory observations. If there is any question which any Deputy has to address to me I will do my best to answer him the better to facilitate the House in debating the question at length in a formal way.