Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 June 2021

Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage


6:05 pm

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)

I welcome the opportunity to examine the Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021, which updates and consolidates the State’s maritime jurisdiction legislation. As a representative of the maritime constituency of Dún Laoghaire, I welcome this legislation. I thank the Minister of State and his officials for preparing this important Bill and for introducing it to the House.

The State’s existing maritime jurisdiction legislation has been developed in a piecemeal fashion, reflecting ongoing development of the international law of the sea over the past 60 years. The Oireachtas first made legislative provision for Ireland’s maritime jurisdiction in the Maritime Jurisdiction Act 1959. That Act established the outer limit of the territorial sea at three nautical miles, the so called three-mile limit, and made provision for a straight baseline system from which part of that limit could be measured. The 1959 Act was amended in 1964 to give effect to the London convention on fisheries, where states had agreed to establish the 12-mile exclusive fishery limits. The Continental Shelf Act 1968 conferred power on the Government to designate seabed, beyond the territorial sea, as Irish continental shelf in accordance with emerging international agreement on this issue.

In 1976, following political agreement at the United Nations, EEC member states agreed to extend their exclusive fisheries limits to 200 nautical miles and an order under the 1959 Act to this effect was made by the Government.

Following the Second World War, as the range and scale of human activity at sea greatly increased, pressure developed to allow coastal states to extend their jurisdiction further out to sea. This was resisted by some states that placed more value on preserving the freedoms of the high seas. These competing views were finally settled with the adoption in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, at Montego Bay, Jamaica. The 1982 convention is a comprehensive constitution for the oceans that establishes the legal framework for the regulation of all activities in, on and under the sea. The convention fixed the maximum breadth of the territorial sea at 12 nautical miles and established a new maritime zone, the exclusive economic zone. This zone, which may extend to a maximum distance of 200 nautical miles, is a compromise between the two competing views.

Today's Bill brings the State’s maritime jurisdiction law up to date, reflecting in particular the development of international law represented by the UNCLOS which was ratified by the State in 1996. The Bill sets out in detail the sovereign rights and jurisdiction the State may exercise on the continental shelf and within the exclusive economic zone, where increased levels of activity and development are expected to take place in coming years, in particular the production of offshore renewable energy. It should be noted this Bill is separate to the proposed maritime area planning Bill referred to by Deputy Canney, which will seek to regulate wind farms. The aim of this Bill is to consolidate the existing legislation, creating a clear statement of the State’s rights and duties in each of its maritime zones. It will help to avoid errors in making and considering planning applications. The Bill will address the absence of policies and principles guiding the existing statutory power to designate the continental shelf and the limits of the State’s other maritime zones, a constitutional issue identified by the Attorney General, by linking it to the detailed rules set out in UNCLOS. The new Bill will preserve the existing boundaries and seaward limits established to date for each maritime zone and provide order-making powers for the Government to prescribe boundaries and limits agreed with neighbours or established under UNCLOS processes.

It should be noted that there are a number of unresolved issues in the north east Atlantic Ocean and in the Celtic Sea, as well as coastal issues at Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough. This Bill has no direct impact on the Rockall dispute. However, given recent events it is an opportune moment to reassert that Ireland does not recognise the UK's territorial claim to Rockall. Rockall cannot sustain human habitation or economic life and therefore cannot form the basis of a 12-mile territorial claim nor a claim to its own exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. I would call on Irish authorities to continue to engage with their UK counterparts to de-escalate the fishing disputes around the islet and negotiate a permanent agreement that reflects international law.

While this Bill consolidates the legal framework that supports our territorial and economic claims, it is crucially important that the Government makes investments in practical means to asserting our rights. More investment needs to be made, for example, in maritime science, along with further investment in our Naval Service, the Irish Coast Guard and in other areas.


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