“This Island Nation...” are words which I have used to introduce Seascapes on RTÉ Radio 1 for nearly 20 years. They have come to be used regularly in everyday conversation to describe how this country is physically placed on the western extremity of Europe. They are words which have been adopted and used by politicians, forming a phrase regularly used in the Dail. They have been spoken by Government Ministers.
It can, therefore, be accepted that there is a degree of awareness that Ireland is an island nation and that this physical entity on which we live is surrounded by water. People have lived in the coastal regions of Ireland for more than 9,000 years. It would be reasonable to expect that from such a tradition politicians who lead our nation would have a pride in our maritime tradition.
Why, therefore, is the Government so dismissive of the marine sphere? Why does it disregard it so much?Brian Cowen may have reshuffled his Cabinet but has done nothing to improve the position of the maritime sector within his administration. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern does not leave behind him a positive record of innovative maritime development. He dismembered the Department of the Marine and spread it amongst several Departments to the stage where it is often difficult to know what is where.
At the Boat Show in Malahide, several exhibitors in the leisure section told me of their difficulties in getting a response from Departments in which marine sections are located. One company has been trying for 18 months to get an answer. Sent from one Department to another, he was still awaiting response.
Brian O’Sullivan, President of the Federation, was strong in his criticism of the Government over the lack of a national maritime policy, but is anyone listening – either civil servants or politicians in Government?
Minister Eamon O Cuiv, opening the Boat Show, spoke of the importance of the marine sphere and the opportunities it provided. To exhibitors, he appeared to be committed to the coastal regions and the marine communities.
But in the larger context of the State’s administrative apparatus, it appears that the marine sphere is meaningless. I have been told that a committee of senior civil servants decided that there was no need to include the word ‘Marine’ in the title of the Department of Transport. Noel Dempsey holds the title ‘Minister for Transport and Marine’ but his civil servants don’t see any point in using ‘Marine’ in the official name of the Department, even though the Marine Safety Directorate is based there and it also has responsibility for the ports.
This is the same Department where senior Coast Guard managers are trying to close the Valentia Island and Malin Head Coastal Radio Stations and move them to an urban centre, one of the reasons for which they have given is that an urban location would be closer to shops, schools and entertainment sources!
How insulting, how dismissive of coastal people and coastal lifestyles. The Coast Guard managers told the people of Valentia Island, who are opposing the closure of the radio station, that Valentia was open to “terrorist attack...”! This is not a joke, it’s actually what was said. They want to move the station to Shannon – a location more likely to be the target of such attacks, one would have thought.
Apart from occasional circumstances, no long-term consistency has been shown by Irish politicians towards the sea.
Irish population history stems from those who arrived first on our shores to establish communities. There is some disagreement amongst historians as to the date on which a land connection existed between Ireland and Britain, but it is believed this did not survive beyond 10,000 years ago. Historical records indicate that the first inhabitants of Ireland arrived after the last Ice Age, some 9,000 years ago in the Mesolithic period. This is based on artefacts such as stone tools and domestic debris found in coastal areas, on lake shores and riverbanks, associated with water and the sea. These maritime connections indicate that the first people to arrive in Ireland came from the sea, crossing open water in some form of boats.
The Mesolithic travellers who first arrived on Irish shores found an island and established their settlements close to the coast. Today our major cities are all based on the coast.
The first inhabitants were the forbears of our ‘island nation,’ but modern-day politicians have not appreciated the value of the sea. The maritime sphere has been treated dismissively by the State, by politicians and civil servants who turned their backs on the sea and looked inwards, neglecting the sea and the bounty it offers.
How will history judge the Government’s attitude to the marine sphere? By its geographic position, Ireland is a maritime nation but the Government seems to ignore the potential that exists, dismantling the marine brief and fragmenting its responsibilities across several Departments. There is an irritating phrase, often uttered by business and industrial leaders, academics and politicians, quoting ‘the knowledge economy’ as an ideal towards which the nation should aspire, a meaningless utterance, when contrasted against State-led disregard of what the marine sphere could provide.
It is time for a national marine policy, according to Brian O’Sullivan,“Ireland, an island nation with over 9,000 kilometres of coastline – a vast expanse – and almost 1,000 kilometres of navigable waterways, is a country with unexploited and underutilised natural resources. We have some of the best coastal cruising grounds in Europe, but with little or no facilities. The fishing industry is on its knees. The marine leisure industry has the potential to grow but is being impeded by bureaucracy and the lack of any Government policy with which to guide the future. What is Ireland doing about this untapped potential?
”The answer is little or nothing. The European Union is developing a policy on the marine which identifies and embraces each maritime sector and calls for a co-ordinated European marine development policy. But our Government has disregarded its maritime resources and reduced the marine sphere to amongst the least important of its concerns. What is required is a national integrated marine policy which considers all the sectors, evaluates their contribution to the economy and also the wider socio-economic impact that development can have on coastal communities.”
The Irish Marine Federation values the economic contribution of the marine sector at ?700m, with another potential ?400m to be earned from leisure tourism.
Time is critical, further delays and procrastination unacceptable, the Federation says. “It is time for a politician with vision to initiate a national debate and ensure that an informed integrated national maritime policy is developed and implemented.”
Is there such a politician? The record would not give encouragement.