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muddied waters

The government wants to open up Ireland's exclusive fishing boundaries - and Senators aren't happy

Seanad members have been debating an amendment to the Sea Fisheries Bill.

A DEBATE HAS been rumbling on in the Seanad about whether boats from Northern Ireland should be allowed to fish right up to Irish shores.

The Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill was introduced by the government, and would allow fishing vessels registered in Northern Ireland to fish from 0-6 nautical miles up to Irish coasts.

The bill was introduced after a Supreme Court judgement that found Northern Ireland boats were fishing for mussel seeds in Irish waters without the proper permission – despite the fact that Irish-registered vessels are permitted to do so on Northern Ireland shores.

This is part an arrangement called voisinage which is part of the London Fisheries Convention 1964, roughly translated as ‘neighbourliness’.

In the Seanad debate this week, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed disputed that, saying the judge had actually called the cross-Border approach to fisheries “an important area of co-operation between the two jurisdictions” and said “there is much to applaud”.

…the Supreme Court did not state this was illegal. It stated it was entirely appropriate and an important area of co-operation but that the exchange of letters was not a sufficient legal framework for it.

“To regulate an arrangement that had been in place for nearly 50 years there was a requirement to give it a legislative framework.”

There are ongoing High Court cases taken by Irish fishermen against the Irish government in relation to fishing limits around Ireland’s coasts.

When the government was asked if the bill they’re bringing forward was interfering with those ongoing High Court cases, the government said that they couldn’t comment – because it would interfere with the High Court case.

What the change will look like

Map 1 below demonstrates Ireland’s legal position since 1964 up to the present day.

(The area in green on the east coast of Ireland between the 6-12 mile belt gives access to foreign vessels agreed in 1964 as part of the London Fisheries Convention.)

That means all other waters and natural resources around Ireland in the 0-12 mile zone are reserved for Irish citizens only.

Screenshot 2017-03-25 at 10.50.15 Sea Fisheries Protection Authority Sea Fisheries Protection Authority

Map 2, which demonstrates the proposed new access to the 0-6 mile belt as part of the Sea Fisheries Amendment Bill 2017.

Screenshot 2017-03-25 at 10.52.34 Sea Fisheries Protection Authority Sea Fisheries Protection Authority

International interest

The fears raised in the Seanad debate this week revolve mostly around what would stop an influx of vessels registering in Northern Ireland to gain access to these fishing areas.

Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan, who’s raised concerns about the bill before, said:

“A fisherman said to me that we could potentially have fishermen from Northern Ireland and perhaps from England, Scotland and Wales coming in right around that edge line of the Irish coast.

I do not think it is a fair deal. I simply ask that we stop this Bill in its tracks – can we just stop it?

Minister Creed acknowledged these worries, saying that the world is a different place than it was in 1964 when the arrangement was made.

“The point has been raised about boats owned and operated. Back in the 1960s, perhaps the world was a simpler place. A man owned his boat and fished in his lough or whatever.

“The world has moved on quite significantly. The Supreme Court acknowledged that it is a different world in its judgement.”

So perhaps it’s time to start a new agreement, instead of bringing in legislation in order to be compliant with 50-year-old rules?

And of course, there’s a Brexit element, as was made clear from this comment from Michael Creed:

Why would it be prudent today, as we seek to negotiate the best possible outcome for the Irish fishing industry in the context of Brexit, effectively to give two fingers to our neighbours in Northern Ireland and say they are not coming into our nought to six nautical mile zone, though we can still go North and would like to hold on to what we catch in their UK waters?

So the choice is between maintaining relations with Northern Ireland, or protecting fishing resources and the Irish businesses that rely on them.

Read: Why is the government arguing to let UK boats fish off Ireland’s coasts?

Poll: Should Northern Ireland boats be allowed to fish off the Republic of Ireland’s coasts?

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