Wednesday, 21 February 1996
Seanad Éireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. Gilmore): I propose to establish a commission to carry out the protection, conservation and management functions of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. I propose that the board will retain responsibility for fisheries and angling development in the region as well as for licensing and fisheries rates.
In November 1995, the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1995, was signed by the President. This legislation was prompted by recurring allegations of activities of a corrupt nature which had been made against certain employees of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. Last week, two officers of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board were charged with offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1906. For obvious reasons I do not intend to deal with matters which are now before the courts. In any event, my immediate concern has been with the adequacy of the manner in which the Southern Regional Fisheries Board addressed these allegations when they arose.
It may help if, at the outset, I say something about the boards themselves. The boards are financed primarily by  way of an annual Exchequer grant which now amounts to over £9 million. In recent years the boards have also had access to additional funding under the EU Structural Funds, INTERREG, Surveillance and other EU-funded programmes which has led to a considerable increase in their development and operational activities.
Elections to the regional boards, membership of which ranges from 20 to 22, including seven ministerial appointments, take place every five years from panels representing various interests in the region. Membership of the central board, which also has a five year fixed term, comprises 13 members, seven of whom are ex-officio chairpersons of the regional boards and the remainder, including the chairperson, appointed by the Minister.
Some 315 permanent staff are employed by the fisheries boards. They have a most difficult job to do and, with present structures and resources, they are making a major contribution. Over the past year, I have met with representatives of all the boards and I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the board members, their managers and their staff.
When these allegations concerning the Southern Regional Fisheries Board were brought to my attention, I met with the chairperson and the manager of the board. Following these meetings and following an examination of the existing legislation and taking into consideration what steps had been taken concerning these allegations, it became clear that the existing legislative provision would be an inappropriate and cumbersome mechanism to deal with the issues arising. Specifically, the legislation then existing did not provide for circumstances in which the Minister might be obliged to move quickly to restore public confidence in the proper functioning of the board and, without removing a board, to relieve that board of some or all of its functions.
I therefore brought the 1995 Fisheries (Amendment) Bill to the Oireachtas last year to provide me with a means of  intervening where it appeared that a fisheries board was failing to manage its affairs effectively. As a norm, it is only in rare and exceptional cases that one would expect that central Government would have to intervene directly with possible serious difficulties in the management of a State board. It is entirely reasonable in the public interest that the Minister should have such powers. However, this right of intervention must be carefully tailored to prevent arbitrary ministerial intervention and to protect the legitimate rights of boards.
The Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1995, provides that the Minister may, by order, appoint a commission to perform some or all of the functions of a board where a board has so requested or after considering the report of a person appointed by the Minister to examine the management and organisation of a board and the performance by it of its functions generally or in particular.
Within days of the Act being passed I appointed Mr. Dermot Rochford, a personnel consultant, under the provisions of section 2 of the 1995 Act to prepare a report for me in relation to the management and organisation of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. Mr. Rochford reported to me on 12 December 1995. He concluded that the affairs of the board were not being and, in the foreseeable future, were not likely to be, managed in an effective manner and recommended that I should consider exercising my power to establish a commission under section 3 of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1995. Having fully considered the report I moved to establish a Commission to carry out the protection, conservation and management functions of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. I have noted that the report of Mr. Rochford emphasises “the valuable commitment, knowledge, ideas and voluntary effort available within this board” and accordingly I propose that the board will retain responsibility for fisheries and angling development in the region as well as for licensing and fisheries rates.
 In accordance with section 4 of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1995, I wrote to the chairman of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board on 13 January 1996 advising him of my proposal to appoint a Commission to carry out certain functions of the board and giving that board 14 days to make representations to me as to why the order should not be made. The chairman has since replied and indicated that he and his board welcomed the appointment of a commission and looked forward to a constructive working relationship with it. A draft version of an order entitled “The Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1995 (Southern Regional Fisheries Commission) Order, 1996” was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas on 9 February 1996, as required by the 1995 Act. I now propose to appoint a commission and accordingly I wish to move that the House approves the draft of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1995 (Southern Regional Fisheries Commission) Order, 1996.
I am confident that the appointment of a commission will help restore public confidence in the Southern Fisheries Board and address the management deficiencies which were identified by Mr. Rochford in this report. I commend this motion to the House.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. There will be no amendments. I agree with the Minister of State in commending the value of the fisheries boards and the great work they are doing and have done in the past. I was a member of one of the first such boards, the South-Western Regional Fisheries Board. I was appointed for one year until the election process got under way. Over the years I have maintained contact with the board. Words could not put a value on the work they do nor on their sincerity. Our side of the House agreed with the Bill a few months ago to enable this Order to be introduced. It is regrettable, but I have no intention of going into all the details because, as the Minister said, this is a matter for the courts.
 Leaving that aside, I am glad the Minister is allowing the board to carry on some of its functions. The elected members believe, heart and soul, in the development of angling and the protection of fisheries. According to the Minister, the board will not totally disappear but will continue to deal with general aspects of angling.
I hold the country's fishery boards in high esteem, and one of my first nominations to the Seanad came from the Central Fisheries Board. I would like to pay tribute to those dedicated people who, over the years, have made many recommendations to Governments which have been acted upon. They are on the spot immediately to act on pollution when anything goes wrong.
When Senator Daly was the Minister in charge of fisheries I made representations to him about the pollution of lakes. This matter has nearly been resolved now thanks to the changes that have taken place over the past four or five years, including the installation of equipment as well as the dedication of board members and the Minister's own Department. We hope it will remain that way. Some lakes that were polluted by pig slurry have almost returned to normal because of the board's vigilance and the Minister's Department. We, on this side of the House, support the Order.
Mr. Belton: I welcome the Minister. Legislation enacted last year has enabled him to bring this proposal for a commission before the House. It is vital that, where necessary, a Minister can put in place a commission, especially for a fisheries board, where much important work is carried out involving both public and European funding. A fishery board must have proper management and must work in a coherent and constructive manner. What the Minister is proposing is very welcome and I have no doubt that existing problems will be sorted out. Hopefully, the Southern Regional Fisheries Board can return to normality and progress will continue.
Mr. McGowan: I support and welcome the introduction of this Order amending the legislation. Everyone is aware that infighting, disagreement, changing of boards — some of which folded up — and lack of proper control has had serious consequences for the tourist industry and, ultimately, for the fishery boards themselves.
It is easy to introduce legislation which attracts support, but I do not know if the Minister is happy that the structures and monitoring procedures are there to ensure that what is put in place will protect the fishing industry. The chairmen and members of fishery boards are not there because of their political affiliations. They are people who have devoted their lives to protecting fisheries and monitoring pollution.
I come from an area on the River Foyle which has had more than its fair share of hassle with fisheries. It was considered patriotic to challenge the authorities, to be obstructive and to poach. We had all kinds of situations, including dumping of hospital waste and DDT in the river, which caused infighting and squabbles. A couple of years ago the control of our fisheries attracted national and international news coverage. For that reason it is important to have structures in place that can be implemented and policed as well as earning everybody's respect. Our fisheries are a valuable asset and there is too much at stake to endanger them.
I welcome any improvement in the legislation but I have some concern about whether we can implement and police it. Will it stand the test of time? Those are the concerns and questions that I wish to put to the Minister.
Mr. Calnan: I also welcome the Minister to the House, and I support his Order to establish a commission to carry out the protection, conservation and management function of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. Fishery boards have an important job to do. Their functions are wide-ranging and must be carried out in a responsible fashion. As the Minister has mentioned  that the matter is before the courts, I do not wish to discuss it any further in the House.
The Minister took the necessary steps in appointing Mr. Rochford to submit a report. At that stage the Minister felt it was necessary to appoint a commission to deal with certain aspects of the board. Some of its functions, such as fishing and angling development in the region, will be left in the hands of the board.
Mr. Daly: I have a few comments to make on the Minister's proposal in connection with the general day-to-day operation and the new arrangement with the commissioner. Can the Minister indicate what the manager of the board's position is now? Will the manager continue to work and is there an arrangement for more than one commissioner?
I have had experience dealing with the inland fisheries over a number of years. When I left school I commenced work with the Shannon Fisheries Board. I was on that board for many years until the new legislation was introduced. Board staff, within the limits of the resources available to them, dealt with very delicate and complex matters relating to fisheries legislation.
We must keep in mind that for many years waterkeepers were poorly paid and had poor working conditions with little prospect of promotion or advancement. They also received little public support and were subject to vicious attacks, including being shot at. Yet they endeavoured to do their work in a fair and reasonable manner.
I dealt with the Shannon and Limerick boards for many years. Allegations and counter allegations were made by  various people. The netsmen complained about anglers and poachers, who did not complain at all because they were rarely seen. In such a situation it would be very unwise to take action and to put commissioners into fisheries boards on the basis of allegations. It remains to be seen whether these allegations will stand up. I believe Garda investigations are underway and I do not want to comment on those.
In my early days as Minister for the Marine and, given my special interest in inland fisheries, I took a keen interest in all the boards, including the south western board. When complaints were made to me by the then chairman, I visited the area and met with representatives of the fishermen, the fishermen in the ports, who complained that they were being harassed, and the board. I remember clearly the evening I met with the board and discussed the new legislation that would introduce a fishing licence, which the board unanimously accepted.
Mr. Daly: He is the former Minister for Industry and Commerce, Deputy O'Malley, who made allegations earlier today in the other House. I do not believe it is in order to refer to contributions in the other House.
Mr. Daly: Deputy O'Malley said on television that communications were sent to me and that I did nothing about them. He did not identify me, but he said the Minister of the day and he gave  the date. If he is entitled to make such allegations on RTE, the national airwaves, then I am entitled to have my say about his judgment and sincerity on this issue. He never raised this issue with me when he had the opportunity to do so in Government. He was aware from the media that these complaints and allegations had been made. The Deputy is riding the crest of a wave at present — perhaps he has nothing else to do. However, he and the Minister would be unwise to take action on the basis of allegations and counter allegations, which in most cases cannot be substantiated.
Mr. Daly: I have many years of experience in dealing with these matters. My late father was secretary of the Shannon Fisheries Board for 40 years and was the commissioner appointed by the Department to deal with Kenmare fisheries when Senator Fitzgerald and his colleagues could not sort out the problems. I have experience and knowledge of such matters and I still have in my possession the minute books of Shannon fisheries which predate the Famine. The records of the transactions and the deliberations of the Shannon Fisheries Board are complex and contain allegations and counter allegations, which nobody was prepared to substantiate.
If the new commissioner substantiates these allegations and discovers wrongdoing, then we must give him our full support. However, it is a dangerous precedent to set aside a body of elected and nominated members who fully understand their responsibility. Mr. Rochford prepared a report for the Minister and I would like to see a copy if one is available. I would like more information as regards this report, what he found to be wrong, which areas will be the responsibility of the regional manager and what are the responsibilities of the new commissioner. I believe this is a recipe for  further litigation. In such complex matters, where there are vested interests and where people are elected to boards to represent certain sections, it is unwise to take action on the basis of allegations and counter allegations which often cannot be substantiated.
Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. Gilmore): I thank Senators for their co-operation in supporting this motion and the legislation which I introduced earlier to enable me now to appoint a commission in the case of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. I agree with comments made by Senator Fitzgerald, who said he holds the fishery boards in high esteem. I echo those comments and would like to add to them. I have met all the boards, which do a very difficult job. As Senator Daly said, it is a job which is carried out in circumstances which are often complex and infused with passion and conflict. They do their job well and the members of the boards, managers and staff are committed. I compliment them on the work they are doing in this area. Senator Calnan and Senator Belton referred to the boards in their areas.
Senator McGowan referred to the wider agenda — the way in which we manage our inland fisheries and the appropriateness of the structures in place for carrying out that task. It is appropriate that we take stock of the way in which our valuable resource, our inland fisheries, is managed and developed.
A number of initiatives are currently under way. First, there is a review of the fisheries service, including the inland fisheries area, which will look at the structure of the fisheries sector to see what structures we need as we face a new century with new challenges and pressures for our inland fisheries. In addition, a group is looking at the management of wild salmon. That group is due to report shortly and, arising from that, I expect there will be new proposals for the management of our wild salmon stocks. That area has been the  subject of many official reports over the years and it requires some attention.
It is unfortunate that we have found ourselves in a situation where it has been necessary to introduce a motion proposing the appointment of a commission to take over the management, protection and conservation functions of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. Happily, those circumstances do not apply in the other boards. This is an exceptional and unfortunate case. It is my intention to appoint one individual as the commissioner for this board. The commissioner will be full-time, based in the Southern Regional Fisheries Board office in Clonmel and will be appointed initially for a period of six months, with the possibility of an extension of that term. The commissioner will have responsibility for the day to day management of the board. It will be a matter for the commissioner to take that forward once the appointment is made and to manage the board in the appropriate manner.
Senator Daly referred to the allegations that have been made. I do not propose either to deal with the specific allegations or with the period before I took office. My concern is and has been not so much with judging the allegations as with assessing how the Southern Regional Fisheries Board responded to and dealt with allegations that were made over a period of time. My approach was to appoint Mr. Rochford to examine the management of the board. He came to the conclusion that the board was not being managed effectively and that it was not likely in the foreseeable future to be managed effectively. He recommended that a commission be appointed and that is what I am doing. This is a response to the problems in the management of this fisheries board.
I told the Dáil this morning that, prior to the enactment of the legislation passed by the Oireachtas last year which enabled this approach to be taken, the only recourse open to a Minister or to the Department was to have a full scale  public inquiry. I did not believe such an approach was appropriate in this case. We needed a mechanism whereby the difficulties which arose could be examined at first hand by a person who would report to the Minister, following which a decision would be made to intervene in a way that was appropriate to the circumstances. That power did not exist until the legislation was passed.
Mr. Rochford's report is available. It was published by me when I announced my intention to ask the Oireachtas for its approval of the appointment of a commission. I will be happy to let Senator Daly have a copy of the report.
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