#marine – The Irish Maritime Administration (IMA) was established in 2013 to integrate the planning and delivery of all the maritime services of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport under a single national office.
The Department's website describes this as "central" to its "drive for more efficient and effective delivery of maritime services."
It is comprised of the Maritime Safety Policy Division, the Marine Survey Office, the Irish Coast Guard, the Maritime Transport Division and the Maritime Services Division.
The IMA, declares the Departmental website, "is developing the maritime transport sector, by facilitating the achievement of international safety levels and by enhancing infrastructure needed to secure employment in the shipping, fishing and leisure sectors."
This weekend The Irish Times reported, in the context of political appointments to State bodies, that the former Minister for Transport, Leo Varadkar, appointed three people without any sea-going experience to the Marine Casualty Investigation Board.
This story has not been denied. The appointments have been defended with the explanation that they were "ensuring that there could be no conflict of interest," according to a Department spokesman. The Irish Times claimed that there was only one member of the Board who had direct marine expertise for the past year.
"No conflict of interest," what exactly does that mean in the context of investigations into marine accidents? The importance of seafaring skills or maritime experience was not highlighted in the quoted explanation from the Department.
The MCI, it seems, uses contracted experts into marine casualties whose reports are submitted to the Board.
The integrity of the individuals concerned is not at issue but it is relevant to ask why this board has had only one member with direct marine expertise.
Is the Department of Transport the correct place for maritime matters?
Moving them into that Department facilitated Government policy which is against the existence of a dedicated Department of the Marine and keeps maritime affairs at a low level in State administration.
Prior to the last General Election both Coalition parties, Fine Gael and Labour, promised a single department to deal with maritime affairs. There was hope for a Department of the Marine again being created. Unsurprisingly, once they got into Government that did not happen. Marine was lumped in with Agriculture, Food and now Defence and aspects such as maritime safety and the ports went to the Department of Transport. Other parts of the maritime brief were put into other Departments, such as Communications and Energy and some seemed to have been lost altogether!
The Government, politicians and officials under the leadership of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who has several times highlighted his maritime heritage in public, did not see maritime affairs as important enough to merit a full department in an island nation, a country where 95 per cent of exports and imports depend upon the sea.
When he was appointed Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, who does have a commitment to maritime affairs, declared that he wanted the maritime aspect of his brief and his title as Minister for the Marine to be publicly recognised. He also indicated his desire to have all maritime matters brought under his department. That did not happen. The Department of Transport strengthened its grasp on aspects of maritime affairs. The establishment of the Irish Maritime Administration within the Department of Transport last year was a further attempt, in my view, to frustrate any possibility of the building up of a strong Department of the Marine.
Several years ago, when Marine Correspondent with RTE, I noted the strong representations a number of ports and exporters to be have them moved out of the then Department of the Marine and into Transport. There was public and private lobbying through the Ports Association and other bodies. It was maintained that Transport would give the ports and all involved with them a stronger position nationally. It seemed that the marine department was regarded as too lowly within governmental structure.
I once sat in the office of a senior politician in Dublin who, under a previous Government administration, had been appointed Minister for the Marine at a time when Ireland had such a dedicated Department. He had waxed lyrical about his family's political tradition and then told me that he was stuck with being the 'minister for fish and ships' but he would have to 'suffer for a while' with that indignity until he could get a more senior post. The man filled me with disgust, but his attitude was indicative of many Irish politicians who have shown little respect for the marine sphere of a nation which has produced mariners of international renown.
The marine sector is so diffused now that it does not have the power or political clout which it merits. That the government has advanced plans such as Ocean Wealth as a means of driving maritime development, does not counteract the lack of a single maritime department. This is not good for maritime affairs in an island nation where they should be a priority.
I have been considering all of these points and others following the inaugural Irish Maritime Forum held at Cork City Hall. It was well-organised by Cork Port, with sponsorship from Liebherr, the German crane manufacturer based in Killarney. There was a big attendance. The presentations were accompanied by the usual audio-visual displays, all aimed "at organisations and professionals within the maritime industry in Ireland" The promotional brochure said: "This forum will look at 'Developing the dynamic future of Ireland's Maritime Sector' by exploring the ocean of opportunities that exist within the sector and concentrating on the key drivers that are set to change the sector in the future. Breakout sessions will explore further the drivers of change within the transport sector and the opportunities and challenges that exist. The forum will provide a unique platform of national and international speakers each bringing their own expert knowledge and experience to the forum."
"Key drivers of change... dynamic future... breakout sessions...." nicely-put management and marketing 'speak' ... There were good presentations, ideas suggested and, it was interesting to hear from international speakers of practices and developments, based on their experience.
There is not a shortage of maritime-themed conferences. What do they practically achieve?
Containers unloading at the Port of Cork. Cork has already begun using the existing deepwater port at Ringaskiddy to ship containers
Waterford Port's dedicated container terminal at Belview. The port opposes Cork's attempt to build a new container port at Ringaskiddy
Ireland's major ports compete with each other, which suits the Government that seeks to avoid financial responsibility for them. So you have situations such as where Cork Port wants to build a container port in the lower harbour at Ringaskiddy, which Waterford Port, having developed its own container port at Belview outside the city, opposes at a planning hearing. Galway wants to develop a major port facility, claiming the Western coastline should have modern port facilities and attract more cruise ships. Other major ports are lobbying against this and being both critical and dismissive. Dun Laoghaire also wants a future in cruise liner visits. Dublin Port is less than happy with this. Cork claims to have the only dedicated cruise line terminal in the country, but as was stated at the Cork maritime conference, cruise shipping operators have no loyalty to any port and will go only where the best deals are offered to them, to cut their costs as much as possible.
Galway wants to build a new port
While Dun Laoghaire is a major leisure marine centre, its Harbour comes in for strong criticism in the survey of the Irish Cruiser Racing Association into this year's national championships held there. The criticism focusses on what the ICRA report describes as the insistence on charging marina fees to visiting boats, something never done at other championship events around Ireland to participating boats, an attitude which visitors found unhelpful and discouraging.
If all maritime affairs were concentrated in one Department it would make them a priority in this island nation. They include and range across all aspects of the nation's life, from the sea around us, to the inland waterways, the ports, energy creation from marine sources, the fishing industry, angling, marine tourism, history, culture, all are part of a nation where people first came to the coastal areas some 9,000 years ago.
A Department of the Marine should be a leading, top-level Department of Government in this island nation. It would be economically important, could create employment, could drive development across a wide range of activities with benefit to the nation. Instead, narrow-minded, self-centred thinking and lack of foresight continues to restrict the progress of maritime affairs, causes duplication of effort and keeps marine affairs at a low national level.
I like the motto of Arklow, that County Wicklow coastal town with a great maritime tradition. As Gaeilge it reads: "Maoin na Mara are Muighin," which translates to: "In the wealth of the sea lies our hope."
That motto came to my mind at Cork City Hall, as I listened to the speeches and questions at the Irish Maritime Forum, but even that title raised the issue of duplication. It was chosen, as far as I remember, as the title for an organisation established a few years ago, by a group of mariners who formed - The Irish Maritime Forum.
Until next week, the usual wish of ..... "fair sailing" ........
Twitter: @Tom MacSweeney