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Fishermen appear in Louth court after NI trawlers seized by Irish naval service

The two trawlers were detained in Dundalk Bay by Naval Service vessel LÉ Orla.

The Amity and the Boy Joseph in Dundalk Bay.
The Amity and the Boy Joseph in Dundalk Bay.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Mar 1st 2019, 3:00 PM

THE DETENTION OF two UK-registered fishing vessels Dundalk Bay has sparked a political row between the Irish government and the DUP, who accused Leo Varadkar of dragging his heels on a fishing agreement in order to use it as a Brexit bargaining chip. 

The two trawlers were detained in Dundalk Bay by Naval Service vessel the LÉ Orla on Tuesday for alleged breaches of fishing regulations.

The two captains of the vessels appeared at Drogheda Court today, where a judge said they were of “absolute integrity” and did not deserve a conviction, reports the BBC.

“This should be dealt with absolute discretion,” the judge said.

Both men received the benefit of Section 1.1 of the Probation Act (they weren’t convicted), and their impounded boats were ordered for immediate release.

Voisinage

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed confirmed this morning that these were the first two vessels detained by the Defence Forces since a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 which found a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ called voisinage had no legal standing.

Voisinage, roughly translated as “neighbourliness”, allows fishing vessels registered in Northern Ireland to fish from 0-6 nautical miles up to Irish coasts, and vice versa.

The arrangement was brought to the Supreme Court which ruled in 2016 that despite Ireland having signed up to the arrangement as part of the London Fisheries Convention (1964), there were no provisions for it in Irish law.

Irish vessels, however, are still permitted to fish in the 0-6 nautical miles around Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Although the Irish government has argued in favour of changing the laws, it’s been met with strict opposition in the Dáil and Seanad, resulting in the legislation being stalled.

In a tweet and press statement released today, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the “Irish Prime Minister must explain why two Northern Ireland trawlers have been impounded by an Irish Navy warship”.

I have already raised the matter with our Government. These heavy handed tactics show Ireland are fair weather friends to Northern Ireland.

Brexit DUP leader Arlene Foster (left) as Nigel Dodds MP speaks with the media. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

He added in his statement:

“Whilst Northern Ireland allows Irish boats to fish in our waters, the Republic of Ireland has policed a hard border and do not allow Northern Ireland boats enter their waters.

This is quite outrageous.

“Despite the Voisinage Agreement to have reciprocal fishing arrangements, the Irish have never enacted any legislation to give legal effect to the agreement. Legislation was drafted in 2016 but remains on the shelf.

We have raised this with the Irish government previously. If they have been holding back as some bargaining chip on Brexit then it utterly exposes the Irish faux concern about a hard border on the island of Ireland.

He said the tactics demonstrated that Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney “are entirely focused on Ireland and are fair weather friends to Northern Ireland”.

“When Leo Varadkar talked about soldiers on the border he didn’t mention the Irish sending warships with 76mm guns.”

Other DUP and unionist politicians have also raised concerns about the detention. Dodds’ party colleague Jim Shannon said in the House of Commons that he was “appalled” at the actions of the Defence Forces.

He claimed that the waters were disputed, and that the naval service had illegally seized vessels that were in “waters that belong to this great nation, this British nation”.

The Irish government’s response

0050 Getting Ireland Brexit Ready_90554408 Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. Source: Leah Farrell

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Minister Creed said that the reciprocal agreement between Northern Ireland and the Republic that had been observed since the 1960s was acknowledged by the Supreme Court to be “a good idea” but needed to be put on a statutory footing.

Creed said the government had been doing everything possible to avoid the kind of situation that developed in Dundalk Bay from taking place, but that legislation giving effect to the fishing agreement had stalled in the Oireachtas.

He said he understood the “annoyance and upset” the detention of the vessels had caused in the broader political community.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney had been in touch with Fianna Fáil yesterday evening, Creed added, and it was hoped legislation governing the issue could now be fast-tracked in the coming weeks.

He said he rejected entirely any accusations linking the issue with Brexit, pointing out that issues to do with fishing rights in that inshore zone were solely a matter for sovereign governments and nothing to do with the EU.

The row comes as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar travels to Belfast today to meet with business leaders for discussions on Brexit and the impasse at Stormont. He is also due to deliver an address at the Alliance Party’s annual conference dinner.

2 Rescues_90513079 Naval service vessel the LÉ Orla Source: Press Military

The two vessels detained this week have been escorted by the LÉ Orla to Clogherhead and were handed over to An Garda­ Sí­ochána, last night’s Defence Forces statement said. 

The alleged offences for the two captains of the vessels were: 

  • Vessels illegally fishing within the Exclusive Fishery Limits of the State, contrary to Section 10(1) of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006.
  •  Illegal entry into the Exclusive Fishery Limits of the State at a time when prohibited so to do, contrary to Section 8(1) of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006.

The Naval Service detained seven fishing vessels in 2018, of which two were UK-registered fishing vessels.

- with reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

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