Serious questions about Government impartiality and independence over controversial plans to construct a massive salmon farm off Inis Óirr have been raised following the emergence of minutes from a meeting between the Taoiseach and a fish farm industry giant.
The minutes relate to a meeting which took place in Government Buildings on January 30 between the Taoiseach, Minister Coveney, and senior personnel from the Taoiseach’s department and the Department of Agriculture, with Marine Harvest CEO Alf-Helge Åarskog and other high ranking members of the company.
The minutes were released under the Freedom of Information Act to Galway Bay Against Salmon Cages, and show An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Marine Minister Simon Coveney agreeing with Marine Harvest CEO Alf-Helge Åarskog on progressing “the deep sea aquaculture initiative” in Galway Bay and for both the Taoiseach and the Minister to separatly hold further meetings with Marine Harvest.
The minutes have sent alarm bells ringing among anglers, environmentalists, some sections of the scientific community, and many TDs and councillors who oppose An Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s contentious proposal to construct a 1,126 acre, 15,000 tonne, open caged salmon fish farm off Inis Óirr.
Opponents allege that the minutes give the impression of the Government as willing to facilitate Marine Harvest’s requests, and in effect, being an agent for the company and its business interests in the State.
Independent Connemara councillor Thomas Welby stated this week that it is “incredulous that the Taoiseach and Minister would be openly discussing how they can put systems in place to facilitate one company”.
Cllr Welby is concerned by the meeting as Marine Harvest is the largest producer of farmed salmon in Ireland and , he alleges, potentially the only company capable of funding and operating the proposed development off the Aran Islands.
It should be stressed that the minutes do not indicate that Marine Harvest will have any running of the proposed farm or that the Government has made any decision in favour of the proposed structure.
However, Cllr Welby points to the conclusion of the minutes which outline “measures/steps” agreed between the parties, including that “the deep sea aquaculture initiative would be progressed in respect of Galway Bay”, and that this could only mean the proposed salmon farm.
For opponents of the proposed farm, the meeting illustrates that the Government may not be impartial on the issue and has largely made up its mind to give the go-ahead, despite the serious scientific and environmental questions which have been raised about the effects of such farms on wild salmon stocks.
Cllr Welby also feels there is a clear conflict of interest taking place in this meeting, especially for Minister Coveney, who in March 2013, following a question from Fine Gael Galway West TD Seán Kyne, said: “I must separate myself from the project to the extent that I need to make an independent decision.” The Minister has the ultimate responsibility to grant planning for the proposed farm.
Opponents are also worried by the request, made at the meeting by Marine Harvest, that the industry needs “a ‘champion’ to take a developmental role (as distinct from the regulatory role ) to drive forward the interests of the industry and to co-ordinate interactions with the EU Commission and Inland Fisheries Ireland. The company felt there should be ‘one voice’ communicating with the Commission from Ireland in relation to the industry