Why we must answer this SOS from our fishermen
No heating or food on the table is the reality for some families, as Maurice Lake, Fishermen's Mission area officer for Northern Ireland, reveals
For the past two days I have been listening to the plight of fishermen in Ardglass and Kilkeel, who have come to the Mission for assistance to relieve their dire circumstances. These are proud men who do a very difficult – at times very dangerous – job, which I would not do for all the money in the world.
Their problem is that they cannot do the job they want to do. The severe winter storms have meant that most of them have been unable to put to sea to catch fish since the end of November.
A retired fisherman came to see me the other day and said this was the worst year he can remember for the industry in more than 50 years.
Some boats have been fortunate enough to get out on occasional days, but their catch has been pathetic, perhaps a box-and-a-half of prawns, which would not even cover the cost of the fuel required to get them to the fishing grounds.
As well, some of the boats are quite old and require a lot of maintenance work, even when tied up in harbour.
The net result is that many fishermen and their families are in desperate need. Can you imagine what it is like not having any income since the end of November? They scrimped and saved and tried all they could to give their families a decent Christmas, but now they have nothing left in many instances.
We in the Mission have been fortunate to get an extra £50,000 put into our emergency fund from Seafarers UK, and that has been a real boost to us in our efforts to offer assistance. Yet, it is embarrassing for fishermen to come and ask for assistance.
Our criteria is to determine the level of need of each individual who approaches us. We have to find out if they have mortgage or rent arrears and if they are in danger of losing their homes.
We also want to ascertain if they have food on the table, or heating. It is almost unbelievable, but some families have had not heating in their homes since shortly after Christmas.
We pay out very little in cash because we have to be able to establish a paper trail for aid which we dispense. So we contact landlords or mortgage holders, establish the level of debt and then pay money directly to them. I have also obtained vouchers from the Asda retailer store in Kilkeel and can give those to families to ensure they have food.
A further initiative is asking local suppliers to deliver heating oil to families and then bill us. Many families pay their electric bills through a keypad or card system and obviously we have to give them cash for that.
A heartening development recently came when a fisherman, who has connections with two Co Down churches, was able to offer access to the churches' food banks for needy families. They can be given vouchers which enable them to receive three food parcels from the banks, each of which will last a family three days.
I hope this gives a measure of the desperation that these fishermen and their families are facing. It makes me embarrassed, both as a Christian and as a family man. I always have heat in my home and I always have food on my table. It does not sit comfortably with me to see families where this is not the case.
I cannot emphasise too highly to the fishermen that they are not scrounging. We are glad to be of some assistance to them and will offer it willingly where possible.
They can also be assured that we handle all their cases with the utmost discretion. What they tell us remains with us and we will never break that confidentiality.
I would also appeal to those we have not yet seen to be patient. Each interview takes 20-30 minutes to establish the facts and obviously there are just so many people we can see in a day. Some men may feel frustrated and I can understand that. They are at a very low ebb and don't really want to stand around in queues, but I can assure them we will see everyone as soon as possible.
Currently, discussions are under way with a couple of big organisations, whose identities must remain secret, about getting more funding for this issue. For that reason, I welcome the attention of the media, which is getting the plight of these families out into the open and starting a discussion on how they can be helped.
A meeting has been held with the minister responsible for fishing, Michelle O'Neill (left), and it would be great if the Assembly could contribute some emergency aid. I know that government departments are under pressure with reduced funding, but this is an exceptional case and the plight of the families involved is very distressing.
We, as a Mission, will be reviewing the situation and seeing if there are ways we could – and will in the future – respond more swiftly to aid fishermen.
I have been deeply touched by the stories I have heard and when the phone finally stopped ringing on Monday night, I felt I was going to have a nervous breakdown.
So I can only imagine how those fishermen and their families must feel.