We are dealing with a very important subject. It is significant that we are enacting decisions taken at the meeting of Fisheries Ministers in Luxembourg yesterday afternoon. Fishing has always been a lucrative activity in the west, particularly in County Donegal. It has provided a livelihood for thousands of families where unemployment is high and there are few natural resources. It is important that everything possible is done to promote and protect that industry which has provided an income for many people down the years. At present the industry is experiencing difficulties due to weather conditions and restrictions imposed in recent years.
The fishing industry has been the sacrificial lamb on the table of the EU, whether in Brussels, Luxembourg or Strasbourg, since our accession to Europe in 1973. Fishing has always taken a back seat when compared to other industries. Fishing interests have been sold short and were not properly promoted. Perhaps we traded our fishery rights for rights in agriculture and so on. Instead of the industry employing several hundreds of thousands of people in an island nation, it employs about 20,000, inclusive of fishermen and those engaged in onshore activities.
After yesterday's meeting it will be very difficult to develop this natural resource to its full potential. From 1 January 1996 the Spaniards and others will have unimpeded access to our lucrative fishing waters, namely the area known as the Irish Box, which was protected to enable the Irish fishing industry to develop. We started from a low base in 1973 and we have been handicapped ever since. It was recognised at the Hague Convention in 1976 and when the Iberian countries joined the EU in the 1980s that we needed time to develop this natural resource to its full potential, but now we only have another year or two to do so. Considering the illegal fishing activities of other countries in recent years, one shudders to think what will happen when there is unimpeded access to our waters. We all heard of the Spanish Armada — this was mentioned earlier by my colleague, Deputy Sheehan — who arrived in 1588, but did not stay very long. The likelihood is that after 1996 Spanish trawlers will be in permanent residence off our coast.
I wish to refer to the restrictions on our fishing industry. A young man or group of people who want to take up fishing as a livelihood will find it almost impossible to do so as they will have to buy a fishing boat, get a licence and purchase tonnage. People will not be able to automatically take up fishing as a livelihood in the future. Under EU regulations fishermen cannot increase the size of their boats to enable them to go to the lucrative fishing grounds unless they purchase extra tonnage at great cost. Instead of witnessing the development of this important industry which would provide employment in areas of high unemployment, we are witnessing its demise in the face of greater competition from Europe.
When discussing these matters reference is always made to fishery protection. What steps can we take to protect our existing rights after 1996? On a news bulletin last night the Minister said some concessions were available for the Irish fishing industry and that more would be made between now and the end of the year. How can we ensure that the concessions given to us on paper will be delivered? Fishery protection seems to be exclusively confined to the south west and south east coasts. Apart from the salmon fishing season, when fishery protection officers seem to take up permanent residence off the Donegal coast, there is very little protection along the north west coast.
The Government recognises that there is a crisis in the fishing industry, particularly the white fish sector. Since last October-November many fishermen have been unable to go to sea mainly due to the inclement weather. How will the aid package of £5 million announced last week be distributed? Who will get this money? Who can apply for this money and will application forms be issued? These questions may not be relevant to the Bill but they are to the fishermen who are looking for direction and an indication of what will happen. Having regard to what happened yesterday, I cannot help but think that this aid package was designed to lessen the blow and sweeten the bitter pill delivered at Luxembourg. I hope this is not the case, but one cannot blame people for thinking that this is what happened. Some of the fishermen I was in contact with last night and today suggested that this could be the position.
Is it proposed to introduce a scheme of compensation for fishermen who are put out of business after 1996? Fishermen who do not have the same boats or equipment as Spanish boats will be put out of business as they will not be able to compete. Can those who will be forced out of this economic activity as a result of what happened in Luxembourg yesterday expect to be compensated by the Government or the EU? That question requires an answer soon.
The Bill is designed to implement the decision reached in Luxembourg yesterday. Section 5 deals with licences, an issue which has been the subject of much controversy for many years. Very few of those involved in the fishing industry or those who intend to become involved in it know how to get a licence. Up to now only the Minister had the power to grant a licence. Two or three years ago approximately 20 licences were granted on Christmas Eve, of which, I think, half a dozen went to Donegal, while the majority of the remainder went to Dingle and a few to Cork and other places. We never found out the basis on which these licences were granted or the criteria used. They seemed to have been given at the discretion of the Minister. This gave rise to the impression that all was not well and that these very valuable licences were issued more on the basis of who one knew and who one's friends were rather than on one's commitment to the fishing industry. The Minister of State who represents a midland constituency originally came from the west and I am sure he knows what fishing is all about. When we were young fishermen did not need a licence to fish. However, it is now as necessary to have a licence to fish as it is to have a licence to drive a car.
The Minister has taken a small step forward to defuse this problem. He said that in future the Minister of the day, or an authorised officer appointed by him, would have the power to dispense licences if the applications were accepted. However, I do not think the Minister is going far enough in merely giving an authorised officer the power to dispense licences. I am sure that like me the people engaged in the fishing industry would not like to see this happening. Why has the Minister decided not to give this power to an authority? Will he agree that it would be better to give this power to an authority made up of reputable people who would decide whether a licence should be issued to an applicant and who would give the reasons for a decision not to grant a licence?
Apart from the High Court — one would need more resources than those available to the average fisherman to take a case to that court — up to now those who wanted to take up fishing as a livelihood but who were refused a licence could not appeal the decision to a court. The Minister should on Committee Stage replace the words "authorised officer" with the word "authority" and include a provision under which an applicant could appeal to the Minister or some other person if their application is unsuccessful. The Minister must do this if he wants to improve people's perception of the licensing system and the basis on which licences are granted.
Licences are a tradable asset. I may be wrong but I think fishermen can sell their licences. It should not be left to the political head of a Department to decide who is issued with a licence.
Before many of us were elected to this House there was a similar procedure in the local authorities. One could apply for planning permission to the Department of Local Government or the Department of the Environment and if that was not granted at local authority level one could always appeal to the Minister. We were all brought up on stories about how planning permissions were eventually obtained through ministerial intervention. We do not want that to happen to the fishing industry. This activity gives a bad name to politicians and politics in general and it is not right. I would like this matter cleared up.
Another section deals with the protection afforded to fishery protection officers. Coming from an area where sea and inshore fishing play an important part in the community, I would support any additional powers or protection for these officers who are merely implementing the legislation for which we are responsible for enacting. I admit that for many years there has been an impression that the fishing rights of this country belonged — to put it as simply as I can — to the landed gentry but times have changed. We have been looking after our own affairs since 1922 and I fully support any additional powers that would be given to these officers. I am glad this matter has been addressed in the Bill.
Fishery protection officers should not be simply chosen from a list. They must have certain qualities and indeed should be given training. They will now be given the same status and protection as that afforded to members of the Garda, who are allowed a training period of two years. What training period is granted to fishery protection officers? If they are to be granted additional powers they should at least be trained professionally for the sensitive job they do. I ask the Minister to take that into consideration.
I wish to refer to the provision relating to eels in which my colleague, Deputy McGrath, is interested. I was always of the opinion that the most lucrative eel area in this country was Lough Neagh and I know it is an important industry there. It seems that the eel industry will have the same status as the salmon industry and, coming from Donegal, I am acquainted with the rules and regulations governing catching, transporting and selling salmon. Eels appear to be a lucrative part of the fishing industry and if the trade is to be properly developed I would be in favour of affording it the same status.
The Bill is necessary, particularly in view of what took place yesterday. I hope, however, that it will not sound the death knell of the Irish fishing industry as we have known it up to now.