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Where is the Dedicated Department for Ireland's 'Vast Marine Potential' in General Election 2020 Pledges?

31st January 2020
Balancing the different demands for using the sea including the need to protect the marine environment must be the work of a dedicated Department of the Marine Balancing the different demands for using the sea including the need to protect the marine environment must be the work of a dedicated Department of the Marine Photo: Dept of Environment

You come across many references in this General Election 2020 to Ireland as an 'island nation' – the 20th largest island in the world in fact – but what are our politicians genuinely doing about this 'vast maritime potential'? 

This island nation still doesn't have a marine policy or a dedicated marine department. It’s a ship of state without a captain or a rudder.

It adds insult to injury to discover that this same island nation was moved to the verge of bankruptcy just a decade years ago after her inhabitants turned their backs on the ocean and invested too heavily in the land.

So much for living in a smart economy.

Not many people living in Ireland realise that it’s the third biggest country in Europe, by virtue of her seabed territory of 220 million acres. 

But there are 'no votes in boats' as the old saying goes so do our politicians genuinely care about the marine?

A good place to find out might be the 2020 General Election party manifestos? Afloat has done a trawl through these manifestos searching for the word 'marine'. 

The manifestos can be accessed in the links below and the numbers in brackets denote the numbers of times the word 'marine',  is mentioned.

Department of Marine Broken up

After the 2007 general election, responsibility for the marine was broken up over five departments. Today confusion reigns, and there are at least six departments involved.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has responsibility for the Irish fishing fleet, but Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is responsible for some other aspects of fisheries – drift nets, for example.

The Naval Service and its fleet – which in turn monitors fishing – comes under the Department of Defence. But the marine leisure section, responsible for our fleet of 27,500 recreational craft – where did that go? The Marine Industry Federation found that the leisure section was missing and put out its own alert, but it hasn’t been located yet.

If you want to build a marina, to cater for the growing Irish leisure boating fleet, you need to apply to the Department of the Environment. But other water sports activities come under the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

The Department of Transport, which would have no transport to deal with at all if it wasn’t for the ships that bring in fuel to this country, doesn’t refer to “marine” in its title, but it has a marine division.

This is the department containing the Irish Coast Guard management that at one point wanted to close the coastal radio stations at Valentia and Malin Head.

Ocean Wealth

Today, there is some hope of an awakening to Ireland’s vast maritime potential with the progress of Fine Gael's Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth: An Integrated Marine Plan for Ireland. When launched the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney even went as far as to admit that we had “turned our backs on the sea”.

The Fine Gael Government’s new marine plan was a welcome commitment but progress has been glacially slow, especially since Coveney's own departure from Agriculture House.

It is also unfortunate that the opportunity to integrate the management of Ireland’s maritime activities within a dedicated department with a single brief has been passed over in favour of an interdepartmental marine co-ordination group. One look at Canada, where a similar plan was implemented, shows how development can be impeded by separate departments talking over each other.

When everyone is responsible, then no one is.

Surely a single department to manage the sector is a prerequisite? Not so according to the manifestos.

Fine Gael has a dedicated section to the marine sphere in its manifesto (pages 79-80) and some thought has been given to reviewing what progress has been made to Ireland’s first marine spatial plan and framework, enacting the Marine Planning and Development Management Bill, exploiting offshore renewable potential, as well as developing supporting investment in our ports and Marine Tourism. FG say: 'As an island nation, with almost half of all Irish people living within five kilometres of the coastline, we have a strong maritime tradition and affinity with these. Fine Gael has prioritised the marine and introduced the first-ever blueprint for the development of the marine sector, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth'. 

Fianna Fáil says it is committed to protecting our coastal and fishery communities.  It will review the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act and it says it will introduce an ‘Oceans Act’ to protect Ireland’s seas while working at an EU level to achieve the establishment of ambitious 2030 targets. FF also say they will increase Marine Institute funding by €3m to boost research and 'prioritise traditional coastal fishing communities'.

Sinn Fein makes the point that rural communities have suffered disproportionately as a result of the failed policies of successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments but there is little else on the marine in its manifesto. 

The Green Party says it will designate 50% of Irish territorial waters as Marine protected areas to heed the advice of the Ecologist E.O. Wilson that half of the natural world needs to be protected in this way. The selection and management of the areas will be informed and combined with a major scientific survey, assisted by all relevant state agencies, of the changes that are taking place in the North West Atlantic due to climate change. 

The Labour Party will set up maritime conservation zones to allow Irish fish stocks to recover and also to protect Irish waters from overfishing post-Brexit. This will require enhanced NavalService resources for enforcement.

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