Two Co Down fishermen are imprisoned in Walton jail in Liverpool. Their crime?
They are accused of catching too many fish. Quite ridiculous, of course, not to say cruel.
The locking up of Charlie McBride and his son, Charles, in a penitentiary not noted for its velvet cushions, must represent the nadir of the notorious Common Fisheries Policy of the EU. Those who administer it in Brussels should have red faces.
The zealots of the Marine Fisheries Agency who administer the policy in the UK should have countenances flushed purple. They will not, of course.
Alone among EU members, the civil service of the UK appears to take a peculiar delight in rigidly enforcing every tittle of the flood of bureaucratic tattle which issues from the Brussels autocracy. Others, particularly the French, have a well-tried technique for dealing with EU regulations of which they disapprove: they ignore them.
When British entry to the Common Market was negotiated by the Heath Government in 1972, the Common Fisheries Policy — surprise, surprise — had just been copper-fastened months previously by the six existing members.
They knew the UK, the Irish Republic, Denmark and Norway, four prominent maritime nations, were waiting to join the club. Between them, they controlled a vast area of European waters.
The purpose of the CFP from the start was to ensure entry to those waters for the fishing fleets of the existing members. The fishing grounds were to become a ‘common resource’.
The fish-rich Norwegians, with a great deal to lose, wisely decided not to join.
From the start, though, for the UK it was a case of — heads I win, tails you lose.
Heath's chief negotiator, Geoffrey Rippon MP, returned from the final accession talks to declare, in a falsehood to the Commons, that UK waters were inviolate — “safe” up to a six-mile limit and partially protected up to 12.
What he did not disclose was that he had acquiesced in a secret deal under which the ban on foreign fleets acquiring free entry was only to last 10 years.
The reality was that UK fishermen had been sold a pup and have suffered grievously ever since. Thousands of jobs have been lost. Tons of fish, by Brussels diktat, regularly have to be jettisoned.
When the so-called quotas were renegotiated back in 1983, the UK, whose waters contained some 80% of the fish stocks, was allocated a mere 37% quota by volume.
By value, UK fishermen said the quota was worth as little as 12%. Meantime the Spanish, because they were being denied full access to our waters, got round this by registering their boats and buying licences, with fishing quotas attached, in the UK.
When Parliament tried to stop this by passing the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act, what ho! the notorious European Court overruled the British law and soon fully a quarter of the UK quotas were in foreign hands.
By 2003 the Spanish had won full access to British waters for their large, ocean-going trawlers. To prepare for this, the fleets of the northern countries, chiefly that of the UK, were drastically reduced, the British at first by 19% in 1992 and then, four years later, by a further disastrous 40% — all, allegedly, in the name of conserving fish stocks. This, of course, was a shameless smokescreen.
The old quota regime has now been replaced by a licensing system which ordains how and when each fisherman will be allowed to fish.
It is centralised, bureaucratic and rigidly administered and militates against the small family fishermen who dominate the Kilkeel and Annalong fleets.
It is to this that the two McBrides, father and son, have fallen victim.
For allegedly over-fishing, they were not only fined £385,000 — more than the value of the fish they had wrongly declared — but the Government's Marine Fisheries Agency turned them over to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the body which pursues big-time drug smugglers.
The Agency ruled that the pair were enjoying “a criminal lifestyle” and the judge froze all their assets, homes, boat and all, as “proceeds of crime”.
Unless they paid the fine within six months, he said they would go to prison for up to three years.
When the older man remortgaged his house and raised £120,000 as a down payment on the fine, he was charged with contempt because his house was a ‘frozen’ asset and he was not free to use it as security on a loan. Both men are now in the cells.
Talk of a sledgehammer to crack a nut!
The price of fish continues to rise, but the future of the British fishing industry and of what is left of the Co Down fleet, remains bleak. When Prime Minister Heath gave away our fishing grounds, did it not occur to him that it could be enough to give the European Common Market — and its successor the European Union — a bad name in the UK?