Government order charged as being contrary to natural justice
At the time of going to press, ‘white smoke’ had not emerged from Leinster House to herald the make-up of the 30th government since 1919. And while it is therefore unknown whether Simon Coveney will return as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, what is known is the unease within the fishing industry that is simmering beneath the surface and is close to eruption.
Not for a very long time – perhaps not since I first became involved with the marine sector in the mid -1990s ― have I sensed the level of palpable frustration and disillusionment being vented by the fishing industry. And rightly so, they would say.
Standing before our European neighbours, Ireland of old would be criticised for its lax attitude to regulation more readily adopted elsewhere. But our lead on the ban on smoking in public places, and adoption of the plastic bag levy, shows modern-day Ireland in a different light.
Once again we will be ‘top of the class’ for our strict implementation of the penalty point system for serious infringements of the Common Fisheries policy that has come into force. Not for one moment does the fishing industry or it representatives contest the reasoning behind the EU regulation to eradicate illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing. What it does challenge, unanimously, is the government order to implement the regulation which they say disallows Irish fishermen of fair treatment.
And they do not stand alone.
The first attempt at interpreting the regulation was challenged in the High Court which made formal orders, striking down provisions of the penalty point system as ‘unconstitutional’. The State was also found to have failed to recognise the absence of policies and principles to introduce a ‘novel way’ of determining serious infringements by imposing a penalty point system.
So it was back to the drawing board, as such, to produce a second order to give effect to the EU regulation, taking into account the findings of the High Court order.
Well, that’s what the fishing industry felt would be the outcome.
To their dismay, and to quote the chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, “it is inconceivable that legislation would be drafted that allowed penalty points to be applied to an Irish fishing licence AFTER Court acquittal.”
And to make matters worse, he says, the fishing industry was not consulted at the drafting stage of the second order involving the department, the Attorney General, the naval service and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. He goes further when he says the Court system was being “deliberately side-lined” by the new order.
In all, Mr O’Donnell set out 14 points in a detailed letter to Minister Coveney, the reply to which he said was almost a carbon copy of a press statement issued to the media, and fell very short of proper communication expected by producer organisation and primary stakeholder.
In a statement to this paper however, Minister Coveney said the person on the vessel was always the person prosecuted on the grounds that he is alleged to have committed a criminal office and that sanctions were a matter for the Courts alone.
Bringing in the new order, Minister Coveney said the changes reflected the concerns that fishermen had raised, and that he had sought to ‘strike a balance’ between Ireland’s obligations under the EU law and the need to give licence holders a ‘fair hearing’.
What is clear is that nothing is clear. The industry is seeking an immediate revocation of the Statutory Instrument on the grounds that it is ‘fundamentally flawed and contrary to natural justice.’