Thursday, 3 June 2021
Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
John Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
I thank the Minister of State. I acknowledge that this Bill is being presented as an opportunity to tidy up existing legislation under a single enactment. I welcome the consolidation of existing legislation in one place. I further acknowledge that the Bill sets out Ireland’s maritime rights under international law and the law of the sea. I must question, however, the willingness and capacity of the Government to assert Ireland’s rights under international law. I and my party have concerns that the responsibilities Ireland has towards our sovereign waters and the marine will not be properly exercised.
We, as a nation, have further responsibilities that go beyond that of the law. These responsibilities relate to our moral duty, our duty of stewardship, and of the guardianship of our maritime resources for our future generations. These responsibilities are intertwined and place a particular onus of responsibility on the Government of our island.
The area of fisheries demands further scrutiny. The Irish fishing industry is of immense economic, strategic and social value to the State. It is estimated that the fishing industry contributes more than €700 million annually. Varying estimates suggest that between 11,000 and 14,000 workers are employed in the industry. At a strategic level, be it rightly or wrongly as things turned out, there is no doubt that various Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments have leveraged Ireland's fisheries in multilateral trade agreements, particularly within the EU. The treatment of our fishing communities by the Government stands comparison with the tenacious bargaining campaign by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, with his European counterparts on behalf of the wealthy farmers of this country when he essentially collapsed the CAP negotiations to maintain the status quo that suits the rich farmers. It is a fact that of the astronomical amount of fish taken from Irish waters annually, only 42% or so is taken by Irish trawlers. Very few European states make such a gift of their natural resources to their fellow EU member states.
On the north and west coast of this island the fishing industry has a particular social impact above and beyond the financial contribution that can be measured within the industry alone. The reliance of our coastal communities on the fishing industry is immense, especially when we recognise that the majority of these communities do not possess any natural resources other than the sea. A whole host of service industries have grown around fishing. The fishing industry has provided social cohesion, identity and heritage for communities, and in many instances it is the only alternative to the emigration of the past.
We must consider also Ireland's responsibility to police the 200-mile economic zone that surrounds our coast. Our failure in this and our inability to secure our own sovereign waters has been called out. The European Commission has instituted a formal administrative inquiry into Ireland's ability to enforce EU fishing and environmental regulations in Irish waters. It was a Fine Gael Government that not that long ago campaigned on securing back our sovereignty, which had been sold out by its coalition partners in Fianna Fáil. We are now dependent on the assistance of our EU partners to conduct naval patrols in sovereign Irish waters because, as a consequence of Government policy, we lack the naval power to do so ourselves. This is a shocking indictment of this Government.
So far in 2021, one third of the Naval Service fisheries' patrols have had to be cancelled for a variety of reasons. In many instances it was because the Naval Service lacked the personnel to staff the vessels. In other instances it was because the Naval Service lacked the qualified personnel to keep the vessels seaworthy. I have spoken many times in this House on the failure of the Government to resolve the issue of staffing in the Defence Forces. This is an ongoing issue of the Government that is alarming, scandalous, and a stain on the record of this and preceding Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments. In the past year 2,700 fishing vessels were inspected in Irish waters. While this figure may seem high, consider the number of vessels that escaped inspection due to the failure of the Irish Government to put a fully resourced Naval Service to sea.
In conjunction with this legislation there is a serious need to examine the damage that super trawlers are allowed to wreak in Irish waters. They are hoovering up our fish stocks, they are devastating the ocean bed, and they are responsible for releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, which had been stored naturally in the ocean bed. Devastating and irreversible damage is being done to the ocean beds by deep sea trawling. Much of the damage being done cannot even be quantified as these depths remain unexplored. The damage can never be undone. Maritime species yet to be discovered may be rendered extinct without us ever knowing that they existed. The record of our stewardship stands in shame.
The north-west coast is now, and will become, even more important in terms of the Naval Service's responsibility towards our national security. It is a site of important communications cables. If we have learned anything at all in the past while it is the vulnerability of our State's cybersecurity.
Last summer I commented on the presence of a British Royal Navy warship in the waters off the coast of Donegal. This is just one of many foreign warships that use Irish waters for manoeuvres. It is a matter of fact that when conducting anti-submarine warfare drills in British sovereign waters, the Royal Navy is required by law to consult with environmental groups and abide by strict requirements that prevent harm or injury to marine life such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. The Royal Navy, however, is not subject to any such laws or requirements in Irish waters.
I put it to the Minister of State that this is totally unacceptable. There are numerous recorded instances of the stranding of whales and dolphins around our coast as a direct result of the activities of foreign navies.
We know they are responsible as the Irish Naval Service does not possess anti-submarine warfare capacity. There is a real need that steps be taken to protect Irish marine life.
I also want to mention the issue of the disputed jurisdiction of Rockall. Lying off the Irish coast, it is an area contested by Britain, Denmark and Iceland. It is valuable in terms of the natural resources that lie in its vicinity and its rich fishing grounds form an important hunting ground for Irish trawlers, which have a long history of association with the area. Since the British withdrawal from the EU under Brexit, the rights of Irish trawlers to fish there have been curtailed. We have had instances of Irish trawlers being forced out of the area, out of Irish waters, by British warships. The question must be asked as to why. It is because the Irish Government, for whatever reason, has failed to assert the sovereignty of the Irish people over Irish waters.
The British have made claims on Rockall going back as far as 1955. In 1988, the Irish Government conceded that a large part of Rockall was under British jurisdiction. In 1988, Eamon Gilmore made a further agreement with the British, which was concluded on the basis of EU membership and commitments under the EU Common Fisheries Policy. This agreement has been rendered null and void as a consequence of Brexit. The Government needs to revisit this agreement. In the post-Brexit world, in the interests of the nation, the Government needs to restate Ireland's claim to Rockall, in order to allow Ireland to continue to pursue its EU fishing quota under the Common Fisheries Policy and under the principle of equal conditions of access in British waters.
Sinn Féin will not support the Bill on the grounds the Government is rushing it through and not discussing it with key stakeholders or allowing it to be scrutinised by them, most especially, the Irish fishing sector. Our approach will depend on how the Minister of State and his colleagues in government approach the amendments that will be tabled. I sincerely hope, given the concerns I have outlined and the feedback we have received from many NGOs and academics, that the Government will approach this in a spirit of goodwill and take on board the amendments we plan to table on Committee Stage to strengthen the legislation, to ensure it is fit for purpose, to improve it and, most importantly, to ensure it protects our sovereign rights over all our waters.