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‘UK got a really bad deal with EU on fishing, but Brexit represents a sea of opportunity, we’ll watch this like a hawk’... meet the Northern Ireland man at the forefront of efforts to safeguard our embattled trawler industry

Belfast-born Bertie Armstrong, who is CEO of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, is battling for the UK to reclaim sovereignty over its own waters

Lindy McDowell

He served in the Navy during the Cold War and the Cod War. And now Bertie Armstrong (67), CEO of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, is playing a prominent role in the Brexit battle. Originally from Belfast, he is one of the foremost voices currently representing the UK's fishing industry. His childhood was touched by great personal tragedy, but he credits his aunt and uncle, still living in Lurgan, for the loving support to his family which he says, has helped him throughout his life. His naval career, where he worked in mine clearance, took him to the Falklands and Italy. And now, as the government attempts to negotiate the Brexit minefield, he argues that the Common Fisheries Policy gave the EU "the bargain of a lifetime". For the UK's fishing industry, he maintains, Brexit represents "a sea of opportunity".

Q. Where were you born and brought up?

A. I was born and bred in north Belfast in a street off the Limestone Road and lived there until I was 18. My mother was called Elizabeth, but she used to get Bessie. She died when I was quite young. My old man, he was called Harry, was in the RUC. I was 12 when my mother died. I had an elder sister, Anne - there was a big gap age-wise between the two of us, she was seven years older than me. She, regrettably, like my mother died young also. But she had a very profound influence on my life. My father never remarried. He brought us up as a single parent. What I didn't realise at the time was the level of effort that my sister was making. When you're 12 you don't see these things. But she, at 18 or 19, very much took on the logistics and admin role in the house. She would drag me by the ears after her to do the shopping and things like that. She later married Tony Cinnamond, who was quite a well-known barrister - he's retired now.

There was another very significant influence in my young life and that was my Uncle Hume and Auntie Netta. They're both still alive, they're in their 90s and, God bless them, they're still doing well. They've lived all their lives in Lurgan. Again, I didn't notice it when I was 12, but they played a really significant part in helping us along as a family. And so, despite the tragedy of my mother's death, I had a happy and loving upbringing, which has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.

I went to Belfast High School. I met my wife Lizzie there, in sixth form. Later we became engaged and then disengaged and then engaged again. And then it stuck! I went to Manchester University, Institute of Science and Technology. I went to study Paper Science, which is a career I've never followed. I'd left Ulster not because I wanted to abandon Ulster, but more because of the adventure that was available elsewhere. So I joined the Navy immediately after university and had a full naval career.

Q. Your job was clearing mines. That must have been dangerous work?

A. It was in the days of the Cold War. I'd wanted to be a diver and my initial qualification in the Navy - as soon as I could manage it - was mine counter-measures and clearance diving, which I kept alive throughout my whole naval career. In the Cold War era, mining was, of course, a big problem.

I'd always been very, very attracted by matters underwater. It was an environment I felt comfortable in - to this day I feel reasonably happy underwater. It was an irrational attraction. There were two irrational attractions in my youth. One was matters underwater and the other was motorbikes. I've had a lifelong love of motorbikes. The first job I had was in a ship that was dispatched to the Cod Wars all those years ago. It's ironic that I was there at the inception of the Cod Wars and subsequently have had a long career with the Scottish fishing industry.

Q. You were based in the Falklands for a time as well?

A. I spent a year in the Falklands - 10 years after the war. I really enjoyed that year. Very unusual place. Completely unique. The Falklands are Marmite. Either you adore the place and find it enthralling, or it's so different from what you might regard as normal urban life that some people don't get on with it. It's an absolutely fascinating place. It's incredibly sparsely populated. There's a very small number of people - apart from those concentrated in Stanley - and that takes a special sort of person to make a life out there.

I found the Falkland islanders to be very warm and welcoming. We had the opportunity, which not everybody took up, but we did, to take our family down. At the time we were in the Falklands our two children were in secondary school - they boarded in Scotland and then came down on holiday, so it was a fantastic experience. Our son David followed his old man into the Navy and also followed his old man in mine clearance diving. Our daughter, Hannah, joined the Navy as a trauma nurse. She served in the major war zones of Iraq and Iran and Libya and now works - talking of adventure - as a medic in the offshore industry in the North Sea.

Q. You also spent some time in Italy...

A. Yes, we spent three glorious years, really interesting years in Naples, at the NATO southern headquarters, at the time Bosnia Herzegovina was reaching stability and things were kicking off in Kosovo. It was an incredibly interesting time to be down there in the NATO headquarters and, of course, you could do worse than spend three years in southern Italy, which we enjoyed.

Q. You're now CEO of the Scottish Fishing Federation. When did you take up that role?

A. In 2005. It was an interesting choice. My wife actually spotted the advert just as I was coming to the end of my naval career. I applied and got the job. And it's been a fantastic roller-coaster ride ever since. I was, for all my working life up to that point, a mariner. I know about small ships, I know about sea-going, I know the challenges. I was absolutely fascinated by the fishing industry. It's a very distinctive industry. You don't do that unless you're a special sort of person. I found the fishing industry something I was very happy to be working with and for. A sustainable, successful, prosperous fishing industry is something well and truly worth fighting for and that's what I've been doing for the last 14 years.

Q. And, unlike many other sectors, the fishing industry is looking forward to Brexit?

A. We are. Whatever anybody thinks of the other aspects of Brexit, the one thing that the UK got a really, really bad deal on, in the EU, was fishing. Around the time of our entry, the rest of the world had decided that the way you deal with unsustainable fishing is sovereignty over the sea area and the assets, the resources inside it - your natural capital of fish, if you like. The coastal state extends to 200 nautical miles - or to the median line with other coastal states - so that you may run a proper, sustainable fishing industry. Actually, at the time, the UK resisted it. That was what the Cod War was about. It wasn't a war, it was about fishery protection. It was about the concept of the freedom of the seas for everybody. At that point in history the UK disagreed with the idea that you have sovereignty over your own bit. But that argument was lost when the international community said: "No. We don't agree. We will have Exclusive Economic Zones." We therefore lost our long distance fleets, which had fished all the way across the north-east Atlantic over to the Grand Banks off Canada, up the side of Greenland and up in the Barents Sea, all round Iceland and the Faroes and all the way across to Norway. We lost all that when the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) were brought in. And it would have been fine if we'd fallen to our own EEZ, which contains some of the best fishing grounds in the world. But that didn't happen because, at the eleventh hour when we'd finally been permitted to join the EU, we ended up with common access to our waters - common access to what would have been, under international law, the UK's natural resource.

Q. This meant that a number of other EU member states could fish in UK waters?

A. Yes. The long distance fleets died and we were not allowed to build up fishing under the laws on common access to the EU. So that was really bad. But Brexit, of course, removes that because we then revert to what is normal for the rest of the world, which is sovereignty over your own waters and sovereignty over the resources inside them. That was never going to happen inside Europe because the bargain of a lifetime had been given to the other seven or eight member states who fish in our waters. The bargain of a lifetime. And that would never have been negotiated away. Why would they? We wouldn't if we were them and they certainly wouldn't do it for us. So Brexit is therefore the biggest possible deal for our fishing industry, because the comparative figures are really striking. Norway keeps in the order of 85% of its fish, its natural capital fished by its own fleets. For Iceland it's even better still - the figure would be north of 90%. In the United Kingdom it's 40%, with 60% given away to the EU under the arrangements of the Common Fisheries Policy. So that's why it's such a big deal. For the UK's fishing industry, Brexit is a sea of opportunity.

Q. Do you liaise with representatives of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland?

A. Yes. We spent last Wednesday in Westminster with the big federations in the United Kingdom including Northern Ireland, lobbying our MPs - my old friend Alan McCulla (chief executive of Sea Source based in Kilkeel) was there. And we had cross-party support. Interestingly, while the matter of Brexit couldn't be more divisive at present, there's nobody I've found, across all the parties, across coastal areas and inland areas, who disagrees with the fishing industry of the UK getting a better deal. And certainly there was great support from all the Northern Ireland MPs who turned up to offer their backing. The only one who couldn't be there was Sammy Wilson, who had another engagement. But I'd met him that morning and he explained that he couldn't be at the event and he offered us his full support.

Q. Do you feel that overall the fishing industry is the UK's forgotten industry? That, despite its importance to a so-called island nation, it does seem to get a bit overlooked.

A. It does. Although I think with the Brexit campaign it has recaptured the public's imagination. We are an island nation. Just look at the map. For God's sake, we're sitting in the middle of the northern continental shelf, which has some of the best fishing grounds in the world. And international law says: "This is all yours." And, of course, fish and seafood is important worldwide. Around 16 or 17% of the world's protein comes from the sea. So we look forward to the day when we are restored as a world class, sustainable seafood producer. And that's very exciting. It would be very big indeed. We would overtake Iceland, for instance, on the world stage of seafood nations. That would be good for everybody, for all aspects of the industry, all across the whole supply chain and for boats large and small. Everyone would benefit from being part of a world class industry and all that that would mean for markets.

Q. So are you confident you're going to get a Brexit deal which will deliver this?

A. The decision making process, the negotiation, is not over. It would be most unwise of me to make a prediction of success at this stage. What we want to do is hold the government to the fire. Right now, and I'm quite proud of this, we've got this into the public eye.

The fisheries White Paper has got all the right words in it, with regard to sovereignty over our waters and the resources in them and who is allowed access, which will be decided not by the fishing industry but by the government. That's fine. And whatever anybody thinks of the Chequers arrangements, the words about fishing are there. We met the Prime Minister earlier in the year and then after Chequers we wrote to her and said: "Look, the words in the Chequers plan are a little less precise in regard to fishing than they were in the white paper. You've not softened on us, have you?" And she wrote back with an unequivocal statement saying: "No, no, nothing has changed." That's where we are. She mentioned fishing in her keynote address to her party conference, which we were quite glad to hear. And it's our intention to ensure that backbone is applied here. We've got assurances from her. We've got assurances from Michael Gove. And we're not going to relent. The parliamentary arithmetic, interestingly, is helpful to us because there's a baker's dozen Conservative MPs from Scotland and half of them are there on a fishing ticket because they supported fishing. And the DUP, arguably the most significant component of the parliamentary arithmetic, are four square behind the fishing industry and the restoration of rights and benefits - the way the rest of the world runs the fishing industry. Those are all reasons to be relatively optimistic. But we're not going to let our guard down. We're going to watch this like a hawk, because it wasn't until the eleventh hour when we joined the EU that fishing got abandoned and we can't allow that to happen again. I think it would be extremely difficult and foolish for the government to let fishing go.

Q. The issue of marine litter and plastic in the sea is currently commanding a lot of attention. Could more be done there?

A. When I first went to sea, everything went over the side. Those were the rules. Over the intervening years international regulations under the IMO (the International Maritime Organisation) very much tightened up what you may or may not put in the sea, both in terms of what goes over the side from vessels and what ends up in the sea from rivers and farmland and all the rest. So the situation is that we, quite clearly, have a problem with plastics. And I'm delighted to see that the world has woken up to that and is taking some steps towards fixing it.

For all of us, we can do our bit by not putting stuff in the sea ourselves. From the fishing industry, the stuff that ends up in the sea is a small percentage. There was an interesting statistic recently that revealed that the biggest inputer of plastic into the seas came from tyre rubber, of all things. It ends up washed by the rain into rivers and then into the sea. So that has to be worked on. We support a scheme where, when you haul your net, if there's anything there that shouldn't be in the sea, you don't put it back. You bring it ashore.

Q. Do you get back to visit Northern Ireland often?

A. Not very much. In my early days in the Navy, because I was part of the Armed Forces and because my old man was in the RUC, I wasn't allowed to go back to Northern Ireland for a long period. But those days have gone now, of course. I'd like to spend a bit more time rediscovering Ulster. I'm occasionally there for matters fishing and I do my little walks around memory lane round the middle of Belfast. The whole thing has changed - absolutely stood on its head, which is very encouraging. And that really is great to see.

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