| 6.6°C Dublin

Kevin Myers: Today, with our country in ruins, we are still importing fishermen from half a world away

There's no right time to ask this question, so I may as well ask it now. How is it that Ireland needs to import trawler crew from Egypt? I had no idea that this was so until the terrible tragedy in Union Hall.





And I should also make it clear, before the self-appointed "anti-racism" lobby starts off with its usual rants and raves and holier-than-thouness, that the lives of the Egyptian crew-members are no less valuable than those of the Irishmen who were drowned.

And actually, I rather admire the courage, the initiative and the enterprise of these Egyptians who have come all the way to soggy Ireland to seek work. In different circumstances, I would have nothing to say about Egyptian hands on Irish vessels.

But the circumstances are as they are. The bottom fell out of the Irish economy three and a half years ago, and the entrails have been slithering out ever since.

Yet despite this, there is apparently no pressure or need, through unemployment or economic necessity or imminent poverty, for Irishmen to take to the sea any more. This is simply amazing.

Indeed, it merely adds to the sensation that the lunacy which caused our ruin continues, only in more subtle forms: the family of four on €90,000 annual benefits, tax-free; the huge children's allowances, tax-free; the 110,000 HSE wages and salaries protected by the Croke Park deal, with an average of 10pc absenteeism on any given day; while the ill join a waiting list headed by the still-untreated wounded from the Cattle Raid at Cooley.

And now another insight into the realities of Irish life. A fishing vessel out of a west Cork port goes down, and apart from the skipper, the crew turns out to be some unfortunate Egyptians, and a lad from Tallaght.

I do not make light of the deaths of these admirable men, determined to do the decent thing, to hold down a job and to mind their loved ones. But what has happened to our coastal menfolk, that they apparently no longer need to go down to the sea in ships?

Apparently, the story is much the same everywhere else: that Irishmen have found easier ways of making a living than hauling nets from out the bitter brine in the dark of early morning, and returning to the empty stone quaysides before first light. The modern Irishman, apparently, is safe at home, in bed, and is above that kind of nonsense. And if he hasn't got a softer job ashore, then he has the dole.

I hear the cry: it's well for you, safe in your home in Kildare, to be complaining about Irish fishermen.

I agree: it is indeed very well for me.

I had far rather someone else raise this vexing issue; indeed, I waited, and I waited and I waited, and no one did. So here I am.

Yet is it not extraordinary, that though we have incurred debts virtually to match the reparations bill after starting a world war, we are still importing Middle Eastern fishermen to catch the relatively tiny quota our EEC/EU negotiators sought for us?

I have written many times about our neglect of the sea and the riches therein, and which has been a source of wonder to all foreign observers on the matter.

The crucial treaty talks in 1921 disposed of maritime matters in the first hour, relegating them to a sub-committee, so unimportant was the sea to Collins, from Clonakilty, not far from Union Hall. (And the great Irish seafood dishes cherished by Collins were . .?).

A Russian visitor to Ireland in 1950 found to his astonishment that the Republic had only 1,600 fishermen -- compared to 2,460 NCOs and 1,048 commissioned officers in the Army.

That is one fishermen for every two officers, in a state in which 15 of the 26 counties -- 58pc -- have a coastline, and five of the sea-free inland counties (a further 20pc) lie on the Shannon.

Bizarre does not begin to describe it.

And so today, with our economy in ruins, we are still importing our fishermen from half a world away.

So be it. If our people are not prepared to work and if we create a welfare system which protects them from the tiresome need to seek employment, then in what way are we being serious about our future?

Can you imagine the Japanese or the Germans saying in their post-1945 wastelands, actually, there are lots of jobs we really don't want to do; let's whistle up a few hard-working foreigners?

I'M delighted that the loved ones of the dead Egyptian fishermen have been well treated in Cork. The natives there have, as one might expect, behaved splendidly. Moreover, I'm generally in favour of immigration, especially when there are labour shortages, and I'm emphatically in favour of integration of those who come here, as seems to have been the case here.

But the larger question remains. What has happened to the fishermen of Ireland that we must import so many Egyptians to trawl our waters?