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Bill to allow Northern Irish boats to fish off Ireland's coasts approved by Dáil

Northern Ireland allows Irish boats to fish in its 0-6 mile zone off its coasts – but Ireland had no laws to reciprocate the same measure.

The two Northern Irish vessels that were seized - Boy Joseph (centre) and Amity (right) - moored in Kilkeel Harbour in Co Down.
The two Northern Irish vessels that were seized - Boy Joseph (centre) and Amity (right) - moored in Kilkeel Harbour in Co Down.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE SEA FISHERIES Bill amendment, which allows Northern Irish fishermen to fish along Ireland’s coasts, has passed through the Dáil this evening.

The amendment was voted in the amendment by 71 votes in favour to 8 votes against – despite concerns from TDs that it could jeopardise the catch of Irish fishermen. The Seanad approved the changes on Tuesday.

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 seeks to smoothen out.

A Supreme Court ruling in 2016 found a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ called voisinage had no legal standing in Irish law, despite a reciprocal arrangement being provided for in Northern Ireland through British law.

Voisinage, roughly translated as “neighbourliness”, should allow 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.

During the debate ahead of the vote tonight, Kerry TD Martin Ferris said: “It is very wrong that a person with a licence in the Six Counties and living in Arklow cannot fish in the South.”

We are preventing that. Restoring the voisinage agreement and trying to get everything right, in order that people will be comfortable with the outcome, is what we are trying to do. 

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.

Clare Daly was among the TDs who raised concerns about the amendment tonight:

…there is huge scope for a lot of exploitation of Ireland’s inshore waters by English, Scottish or Welsh boats, for example. It is incredibly messy.

She also raised the Brexit dimension to the case, given that Environment Secretary Michael Gove has indicated that the UK would leave the London Fisheries Convention as part of the Brexit process and to “take back their waters”, meaning Ireland wouldn’t need to reciprocate the measure:

“Why are we considering doing it now when our arrangements are totally unclear with the Brexit situation? I was sorry earlier but am even sorrier now that we are ramming this Bill through, given that Brexit is delayed.”

Following the approval of the bill’s amendment tonight, Minister for the Marine Michael Creed said:

Extremely pleased that fishermen from every corner of this Island again share the same rights to our inshore. Thanks to all the Parties and Fisheries organisations for their co-operation in getting the Sea Fisheries Bill through the Oireachtas today.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said that this was ”long overdue”. 

I raised it with the Irish Government on several occasions. A sensible step. Good news for our fishing industry.

Fisherman Gerard Kelly, who is on hunger strike outside government buildings to protest the passing of the bill, and who was among the applicants to take the case to the Supreme Court in 2016, has written to the President of Ireland to urge him not to sign the bill into law.

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