The Department of Defence has chartered the cargo ship MV Zeran to carry heavy material and supplies for the (currently about 70-strong) Irish Army contingent serving with the international peace-keeping force in the Republic of Chad in Central-Africa. The ship arrived at Dublin's North Quay yesterday to receive her cargo.
MV Zeran (photo) is owned by Pol-Levant, a Polish cargo shipping company based in the port of Gdansk. But the red-and-white flag that flies on her mast is not that of Poland. It is in fact the flag of Malta, where the Zeran is officially registered. And Malta, despite being now member of the EU, is still a "flag of convenience" country, where merchant ships from any country can register under most favourable conditions (for the owners) and with no questions asked.
Other popular "flag of convenience" countries are Antigua, the Bahamas, Cyprus, Liberia and Panama. Many vessels flying a "flag of convenience" are in bad condition, and on board the standards are generally lower than in ships under their own national flag. Pay and living conditions for the crew - often recruited from the poorest countries in Africa or Asia - are also much lower, and safety regulations are rarely up to the proper international standard, if they are observed at all.
Well, long gone are the good old days when we had our own Irish merchant fleet, proudly flying An Bhratach Náisiúnta. Successive Irish governments, involving all our major political parties, have sadly neglected the maritime interests of this island nation and presided over a steady decline of Irish shipping. Since the last general election the government has not even any longer a Department of the Marine. Its responsibilities have been added on to the Department of Transport, currently headed by Noel Dempsey, a TD from landlocked Co. Meath, who has no real interest in - nor any experience with - maritime matters.
I have no problem with the fact that the Department of Defence chartered a foreign ship, as there is probably at present no suitable vessel under Irish flag available. But did it have to be one flying a "flag of convenience"?
In January a representative of the International Transport Federation discussed the matter with Noel Dempsey and received promises that Ireland would be supporting the line adopted by many other EU countries and not use "flags of convenience" for official state business.
And only three weeks ago Taoiseach Bertie Ahern spoke in the Dáil against the widespread practice of using ships flying "flags of convenience".
However, when it comes to practicing what one preaches, our government is found wanting. But given the record Bertie and his ministers have on other matters, this is not really a surprise. Much is rotten on this island, and the fish - as always - starts stinking from its head.
The Emerald Islander