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Brexit: MPs call for action to help Northern Ireland fishing fleet

By Mark Bain

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has called on the Government to take immediate action to give the fishing industry the best possible opportunities from Brexit.

A report published today welcomes proposed changes to the fishing quota, but warns that on their own they will be insufficient to bring back full benefits to local communities.

The committee now wants the Government to invest in the Northern Ireland fishing sector and act to tackle manpower shortages.

Committee chair Dr Andrew Murrison MP said: "Fishermen believe Brexit will be a shot in the arm for their industry. We heard pleas for increased quota and action to alleviate crewing shortages in the Northern Ireland fleet.

"The Government's fisheries white paper is a step in the right direction, but more detail is needed on how quota allocations will change.

"The industry also needs to be reassured that the Government will be ready to support them in the unlikely and undesirable event of no deal.

"The Government must now take action on Ireland's unilateral suspension of the Voisinage Arrangement and on the long-running dispute over Lough Foyle."

The Voisinage Arrangement allows for mutual access to Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland vessels up to six nautical miles off the coast of each country.

Since Brexit there has been considerable debate between politicians on both sides of the border over who should have the right to use Lough Foyle.

Dr Murrison continued: "We found an industry in Northern Ireland with great people and huge potential, but it is fragile.

"Changes to quotas and access to waters aren't enough. We must develop infrastructure to support the Northern Ireland fishing fleet, find crews for boats and enable fishing businesses to sell into Europe post Brexit."

The report's findings were welcomed by Alan McCulla, chief executive officer of Kilkeel-based fisherman's co-operative Sea Source Ltd and the Anglo North Ireland Food Producer's Organisation.

"It's very encouraging to see MPs very engaged and having a genuine interest in the fishing industry," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Fishing is one of the few industries that has the very real potential for a tremendous dividend from Brexit. We're especially pleased to see there has been a call for access to properly qualified and experienced crew.

"We've seen an escalation in the 'scallop wars' between the UK and France recently, but it also has to be recognised that Dublin has been excluding Northern Ireland fishermen. The Voisinage Arrangement has been suspended in Ireland since 2016 and we need Dublin to engage on this issue and end the impasse.

"Then we need to look at infrastructure in the industry in Northern Ireland. Given the current political situation, we've had no one here making decisions for the past 18 months at a time when major decisions need to be made.

"Brexit will happen, but there's no way we will be able to maximise the potential benefits it will bring unless we act now.

"It's ironic that the Republic of Ireland has been investing heavily in port infrastructure when they could be the losers. In Northern Ireland we are behind the game and I'd encourage London to progress urgently."

For Mr McCulla, the only disappointment in the report is the failure to mention the Hague Preference, a mechanism designed to adjust national fish quota allocations to take account of the needs of certain fisheries-dependent areas in northern parts of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland.

"The existence of it was a main reason why we saw 92% of the Northern Ireland fishing industry vote to leave the EU. Since 1990 opportunities have been stolen from Northern Ireland fishermen and gone to the Republic of Ireland," he said. "That's discriminatory and I will be asking the NI Affairs Committee why this has not been addressed.

"But the message is simple. There are decisions to be made and investment needs to come.

"We have to act now or risk missing out."

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