Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage

 

5:05 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)

I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Maritime Jurisdiction Bill presented by the Minister of State. As the Minister of State has indicated, this is a consolidation Bill to set out the legal framework for Ireland's maritime jurisdiction. As the Minister of State explained section by section, it is quite a technical Bill not only consolidating enactments going back a very long time but also, in essence, an enabling Bill for the State to set out its jurisdiction over maritime areas in clear legal framework terms.

The national maritime framework has been discussed in the House. In truth, very limited discussion took place on it and most Members who spoke were very critical of the amount of time the matter received. There will be further significant legislation that will address many of the issues the maritime framework has touched upon in operational terms.

Unlike land planning, much of what can be regulated at sea is subject to international law. Treaties are negotiated over time. The Minister of State probably instanced the most important of these, which is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was concluded in 1982. This important legislation determined international territorial waters, for example, the 12 mile nautical limit. Prior to that, various limits existed, with some claiming territorial limits of 12 miles and others claiming territorial limits of 200 miles.

It was agreed that would be, as the Minister of State has explained also, an economic zone with different rights accruing to the sovereign state than the extensive rights that accrue to our territorial waters.

No doubt there is renewed focus on the marine environment right now. The fact that there are enactments and various debates before this House underscores that. It has not always been the case. Quite often, despite the fact that we are an island nation, we have turned our back to the sea and focused more on terrestrial activities to our great detriment but we now need to focus differently not only on our waters, but on the oceans in general. We need to look at it from an environmental perspective, from a fisheries perspective, from an energy perspective and from a transport perspective. I hope to touch upon all of those in the few minutes that I have because each of those areas of important activity is critical to us as an island nation.

The first principle in claiming to have legal rights over any space, be it territorial or maritime, is dependent on our ability to map that space, to know what is in it and to know that we have the capacity to protect and defend the legal rights that we assert. This legislation gives to the Oireachtas and the Government the capacity to set out what our sovereign territorial areas in our maritime coasts are but it is meaningless if we do not have the capacity to vindicate those rights.

The Naval Service was strengthened with four new modern vessels in recent years and in the worst of times, the resources were found to provide that level of capital investment which is absolutely critical. There is now never a greater need than since Brexit for a strong and independently sustainable Naval Service. However, we have an enduring and wholly unacceptable crisis in the Defence Forces generally, but particularly among that skill set we need to keep our ships at sea and our aircraft in the air. Ships, over the past year, have remained tied up in port for want of specialist crew. This follows a previous decision to take ships out of operations and to disperse their crews in a desperate effort to provide adequate ships company to keep at least some of our naval vessels on patrol at sea. The flight of skilled people from all branches of our military continues despite commitments to address and resolve this crisis given repeatedly in this House. The root causes have long been identified. In a report, Workplace Climate in the Defences Forces, the Defence Forces personnel themselves underscored what was required. They addressed the key issues of pay and living conditions, career management and performance management, culture and stress and the process of recruitment and training. I will not go into all these matters. I have not the time. That particular report, among others, set out the recommendations and the specific actions needed to resolve these difficulties. There has been endless discussion and the reality of loss of personnel and gross under-staffing remains. That poses a real threat to the security of the State, our capacity to intercept illegal cargoes including drugs and our capacity to carry out our legal commitments to fulfil our undertakings to our EU partners to protect our fishing waters and our fishing resources. It also impacts on our capacity to safeguard the very marine areas that this Bill gives the Oireachtas and the Government the powers to designate.

This issue has become a matter of national embarrassment, quite frankly, as we depend now on others to vindicate Ireland's sovereignty. We cherish Ireland's sovereignty. We celebrate its vindication and its acquiring but we are betraying that sovereignty if we have not the capacity to ensure that our waters are properly protected.

In the air, too, the Air Corps was promised the replacement of the CASA maritime patrol aircraft. Those particular two aircraft have been in active service since 1994. It was agreed some years ago that they would be replaced by two new Airbus C295 aircraft. Those were ordered in 2019 but they are not due to arrive until 2023. I cannot understand any level of procurement that would take years to come about because I understand that the Czech airforce at the same time placed an order for two aircraft that are being delivered this year. All of this is a cause of deep worry and I hope something that will now finally be resolved and addressed because it makes a nonsense of setting out our sovereign territorial rights if we simply do not have the capacity to enforce them.

I want to talk about the areas that I have set out. The first area I want to focus on briefly is energy.

The Government energy strategy is to reach zero carbon and is hugely dependent on offshore wind as a significant component of the generation of electricity to meet that target. It is clear that this energy will be developed in two phases with fixed turbines in the shallower waters off our east coast being developed first in phase one and the more technologically challenging floating turbines which will be required to harness the enormous potential of wind off our west coast to follow in a second phase as the technology evolves and is developed. Each of these huge investments - absolutely required if we are to have energy sustainability for ourselves and to decarbonise as we promised - will need to be serviced. The decision on which port will service each of these major developments on the east coast and on the west coast is urgently awaited. Certainly, a decision to decide which port will service east coast wind - I have spoken to the companies which want to invest in the development of this wind potential - is urgently required now. There is no guarantee that enormous capacity will be serviced from a port in the Republic of Ireland. The ports of Liverpool and Pembroke are clearly in the running. It would be an enormous failure of the State if we lost to a British port the capacity to service offshore wind off our own coast and that is potentially to happen. I understand that there is a huge reluctance in Government to pick a champion and say this is the right port. Obviously, I will advocate for the port of Rosslare. Rosslare Europort will make its own case. It is commonsense in terms of its location and capacity and it already has been used as the port to do the pilot work for the Arklow Bank turbines that are already in place.

It will make its own case and stand on its own merits, but it needs investment. There is a notion that the Government is reluctant, be that down to a shyness over state aid rules or some other reason, to decide that we need to have a port within the Republic that can do this work and that we will support it in its bid to do so. Let me be crystal clear - if we do not champion a port and instead leave this to the marketplace, we will lose this business to one of the ports I have mentioned or another port outside our jurisdiction. That would be a crying shame. I hope the Minister of State will take note of what I have said and bring it back to his Government colleagues, as we need to determine a champion. State aid rules will not apply in Liverpool, Pembroke and so on. The Welsh and English Governments will be willing to ensure their ports have the capacity to make this bid. I will be watching the matter with extraordinary interest.

I wish to discuss fisheries. There is a genuine and understandable sense in the fishing industry of being let down at the deal struck on Brexit insofar as it impacted on that sector. The Government has acknowledged this. It is not an acceptable or good deal for the fishing industry. In the negotiations, the State had many clear objectives. The House set objectives for the Government, foremost among which was maintaining European solidarity as well as a border-free island of Ireland post Brexit. The latter was an essential objective, one that skilled negotiation and the holding of solidarity among the EU 27 achieved for us, but I am afraid it was done at a cost. Part of that cost is now being paid by the fishing sector. In truth, this is compounding the long-held and strong view of our fishing industry, one that is difficult to argue against, that from the outset of our EU membership, which by and large has been very positive for the State, our economy, our people and our development, the industry was sacrificed in our initial EEC negotiations to safeguard other interests that were regarded as more important at the time. We must not compound that view now. I ask that we seek again to rebalance the agreement so as to ensure the significant advances we have made in developing a fishing industry with markets all over the world. I was privileged in a former role as Minister to present sea products from my own constituency and across the island of Ireland at fairs in Japan and China, where there are large markets and considerable potential. However, we must ensure the industry has the capacity to continue operating.

Regarding transport, direct connectivity from this island is essential. We have long depended on the UK land bridge for the bulk of our exports to continental Europe. The situation has changed substantially, though. Since 1 January, the number of direct sailings from Rosslare Europort to continental Europe have increased by more than 400%. This is a remarkable change. I had the pleasure of chairing the economic committee of the British-Ireland Parliamentary Assembly last week where submissions made by interested parties indicated that the increase was likely to be a permanent change. We need to ensure this direct connectivity is maintained, we seek other ports and, through the Irish Maritime Development Office and the Department of Transport, we drive more connectivity so that we are not dependent on the land bridge. Of course the land bridge will continue to operate, but if we can get our goods directly to markets through direct ferry links between this country and continental Europe, we should be developing those new markets. I am not referring just to the traditional ports in France and new ones that have come on stream since 1 January, but also other connections through Spain, the Netherlands and further afield. We need to connect Ireland in a maritime sense in the same way as we have connected Ireland by air to places over the past 20 years without the old dependence on transiting through London if we wanted to go anywhere. We have changed that dependence over the past 20 years and we now need to have same mindset when it comes to the maritime sector and have many more ports connecting this country to markets across Europe and further afield.

The marine environment is important. There is no point in us talking about claiming sovereignty if we do not live up to our responsibilities to maintain a pristine environment. We have fallen down in terms of sewage discharge and the level of investment in treatment plants. Significant capital investment is still required. The dependence of Irish Water on being in the same queue as schools, hospitals and health centres for money to undertake this vital work is a great disadvantage. I hope that we can find some mechanism for it to be able to borrow off balance sheet in the same was as the ESB has done so that it might provide an infrastructure that ensures that our waters are pristine and we as a nation are not contributing to the pollution of the seas.

This is important legislation, if largely technical. When the other Bill, which is not a Department of Foreign Affairs measure, is before the House, we will have an opportunity to deal in more detail with some of the issues that I have set out. In general terms, though, a consolidation of our capacity to set out our jurisdiction is something that I welcome.

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