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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 18 January 2022

Government finally wins battle to allow NI boats to fish along Ireland's coasts - so what does it mean?

There was fierce opposition from some quarters – here’s what the bill means.

Image: Shutterstock/Nigel Wallace

ON WEDNESDAY, A bill allowing Northern Irish boats to fish along Ireland’s coast was signed into law by the President of Ireland, after being passed by the Oireachtas

It means that it’s now legal for Northern Irish boats can fish in the 0-6 nautical mile zone along Ireland’s coasts, as Irish boats have been doing in the North for years.

There’s been pressure to get the amendment approved after two Northern Irish fishing vessels were detained earlier this month. The two captains appeared in Drogheda Court for alleged breaches of fishing regulations, which this bill aims to smoothen out.

After the two captains entered guilty pleas, the Drogheda judge said the men were of “absolute integrity” and did not deserve a conviction.

They had been operating under voisinage, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that the Irish government signed up to which allows fishing vessels registered in Northern Ireland to fish from 0-6 nautical miles up to Irish coasts, and vice versa.

The pressure to make the arrangement between the two countries ‘official’ only became a priority after the Good Friday Agreement, when it was clear that there were two separate jurisdictions. 

Despite the arrangement being in place for decades, in 2016, a Supreme Court ruling found that voisinage had no legal standing in Irish law, despite a reciprocal arrangement being provided for in Northern Ireland through British law.

Mussel fisherman Gerard Kelly was among the four mussel fishermen who took that Supreme Court action against the Irish government.

As the bill was being debated in the Dáil and Seanad, he went without food for three days and two nights, and slept outside the Dáil last month in a form of protest.

There’s been quite a heated opposition to providing for voisinage, and whether it should happen so close to Brexit – given that a lot of leading British politicians are advocating for a policy of “take back our waters”.

So what is of concern to Kelly in the bill, which is this short amendment that states:

(1) …a person on board a foreign sea-fishing boat shall not fish or attempt to fish while the boat is within the exclusive fishery limits unless he or she is authorised by law to do so.
(2) A person who is on board a sea-fishing boat owned and operated in Northern Ireland may fish or attempt to fish while the boat is within the area between 0 and 6 nautical miles as measured from the baseline (within the meaning of section 85) if, at that time, both the person and the boat comply with any obligation specified in subsection (3), which would apply in the same circumstances if the boat were an Irish sea fishing boat.

Kelly says that his concern is with the line that says a boat “owned and operated in Northern Ireland” isn’t clear – he is concerned that Dutch or French boats could register in Northern Ireland to avail of this arrangement. 

This would mean that those boats would have to give up their fishing licences in their country of origin in order to register in Northern Ireland, and to avail of the 0-6 mile fishing zone covered by voisinage, a relatively small area. 

He’s also concerned about how the implementation of this law will have if the UK decides to “take back its waters” as part of the Brexit process.

“If we continue the path we’re heading, we’re going to be slaughtered,” Kelly says.

“There’s going to be an influx of EU fleets. There are  two coastal countries: one is the UK and the other is Ireland. Because of Brexit the one coast country we’ll have left is Ireland.” 

The UK is thought to hold this argument as one of its strongest cards in negotiations. In fact, fisheries is one of the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement for which there is the least amount of detail.

The 2016 judgement

Part of the opposition to voisinage arises out of a concern for Ireland’s mussel fishing industry.

In the 2016 Supreme Court judgement, it noted that there had been a trend in recent years in mussel fishing that had indicated the industry was suffering.

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“In 2005, by way of illustration, Ireland produced 29,500 tonnes of bottom mussels, the National Development Plan envisaged that this would rise to 44,000 tonnes by 2015. However, in 2010, the figure had dropped to just over 13,000 tonnes and the figure for 2013, was down to 2,500 tonnes.

“To put those figures in some context, it should be noted that during the years 2000 to 2006, 20,000 was seen as a somewhat disappointing year.”

The very poor return in 2013 is a cause of particular concern. Summer sea temperatures last year were several degrees above average and that should have produced a bumper yield, but the actual outcome was indicative of a fishery in collapse. 

Some fishermen are fearful that the Sea Fisheries Amendment Bill, providing for voisinage, will put this sector under further pressure.

The four mussel fishermen had argued during the court case that mussels were a natural resource that the State had a legal obligation to protect, and so could not implement voisinage.

And although the judgement acknowledged that “at one level”, mussel seed is a natural resource, that it was “doubtful whether that constitutes it a natural resource owned by the State”, meaning it was unsure that the State had an obligation to protect it as a ‘natural resource’, as defined in law:

“Can it be said that the wild fish, birds or animals are owned by the State in which they are as of a particular time? States may license hunting or fishing, make provision for closed seasons and so on, but this is not to say that the State owns the fish or animals.”

Politics and the bill

Speaking ahead of the passing of the bill, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed said that in July 201, June 2018 and as recently as December 2018, the UK government had clarified its committment to upholding the voisinage agreement:

The UK Government remains committed to the principles behind the Voisinage Arrangement and to protecting and supporting continued cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have continued to honour the agreement. 

But, acknowledging the lack of provision in Irish law, the British government also added that it would “not be able to accept this unequal application indefinitely”. 

Speaking during a Dáil debate on the bill,  said that “regardless of Brexit or anything else, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and in the context of harmonious relationships North and South, it is only right and proper that we would restore that reciprocal arrangement.

“Restore” means just that. That is what the Bill is for, not any other purpose. 

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