Dáil debates

Thursday, 8 February 2007

4:00 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Question 7: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the position of the Government in relation to the vindication of Irish entitlements under the law of the sea and related instruments to the seabed. [4307/07]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that a coastal state exercises sovereignty over its territorial sea, which is the belt of water located immediately adjacent to its land territory. Every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. Sovereignty extends to the bed and subsoil of the territorial sea. Ireland ratified the convention on 21 June 1996 and has established a territorial sea 12 nautical miles in breadth.

The convention also provides that a coastal state exercises sovereign rights over its continental shelf for the purpose of exploiting its natural resources. Each coastal state is entitled to a continental shelf 200 nautical miles in breadth regardless of whether the shelf naturally extends this far, subject only to the same rights of neighbouring states. Where the shelf naturally extends beyond 200 nautical miles, this must be established to the satisfaction of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf before a coastal state can exercise its sovereign rights there.

Ireland's shelf naturally extends beyond 200 nautical miles both to the west and the south of the country. Scientific and technical data must be submitted to the UN Commission to satisfy it that all claims are valid. For the purposes of our claims we have divided our shelf into three sectors.

The first sector is to the south west of the country on the edge of an area known as the Porcupine Abyssal Plain. This sector, which is approximately half the size of the State's land territory, is not disputed by any other state and was therefore the subject of Ireland's first submission, made in May 2005. The UN Commission is expected to make its recommendations concerning the limits of the claimed area in March of this year. The Government will then designate the additional seabed enclosed by these limits as continental shelf belonging of the State. Ireland is likely to become the first state in the world to establish a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from shore. Once this sector is designated, hydrocarbon prospecting and exploration can be licensed there.

The second sector of claimed extended continental shelf is in the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay. This was the subject of a joint submission made together with the UK, France and Spain in May 2006 and covers an area of approximately 80,000 square kilometres, which is slightly larger than the State's land territory. The UN recommendations are also expected shortly on this sector and the question of delimitation of the zone established on the basis of these recommendations will be finalised thereafter.

Finally, we claim shelf on the Hatton-Rockall Plateau in the north-east Atlantic where there are overlapping claims by Iceland, Denmark and the UK. Despite meeting regularly since 2002, the four states have as yet been unable to agree on the making of a joint submission or co-ordinated national submissions. These consultations are continuing.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I welcome this information which I have been seeking for some time. I have also submitted a parliamentary question for a written response on an issue which is a rather sad affair, namely, about Irish oil and gas companies that have announced they are taking up licences off the former territories of the Spanish Sahara that are in fact the property of the Saharawi people. While other international companies have withdrawn from those waters by arrangement with Morocco, the EU has illegally granted mining rights just off the shores of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic's territory, which is currently under occupation. That is scandalous. I presume that such companies might be more assured of moving into our waters if they become available. Does the Minister anticipate legislation being prepared quickly to implement results likely to come under UN consideration in March? I am not sure whether it took 30 or 40 years for decisions to flow from previous conferences on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Second, it will obviously require an entirely new minerals and resources legislative regime. Does the Minister envisage that? If the UN report, as is expected, rules in our favour, will he institute bilateral talks with the UK and Denmark to establish the basis of the UN recommendation on Rockall?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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It is not yet known whether legislation will be required. It will obviously depend on the determination of the UN commission. The first application was made during my tenure as Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and I have now taken it over to a certain extent. What was the second question?

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I referred to a later written question on the illegal actions of an Irish company. The second question was whether the Minister would introduce a new marine and natural resources Bill.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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That is a question for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and it would very much depend on the UN commission's determination.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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What about bilateral talks?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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That does not arise regarding our claim to Rockall. Negotiations took place leading to the adoption in 1982 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and Ireland successfully resolved the issue of Rockall by ensuring that the convention provide that "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf". While neither we nor the British recognises each other's claim to sovereignty over Rockall, the issue no longer has relevance to the delimitation or extension of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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This issue arose at the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources as well as at meetings on energy. If it transpired that a very profitable zone containing minerals, ore, oil, gas or something else were discovered in that region or nearby, or in some other similar region, how would we resolve the problem of rights, entitlements and ownership in terms of what the Minister has said? I recognise that he dealt with the matter before, but similar circumstances could arise, as referred to by Deputy Michael D. Higgins.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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That too is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and I would not like to comment on it. As it stands, there is an agreement to disagree regarding Rockall. The Deputy is talking hypothetically when he speculates about anything being discovered there.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It was hypothetical.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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In anticipation of the vindication of our rights and sovereignty over an extended area, which would be very welcome, should we encourage Irish companies to respect such sovereignty elsewhere? Perhaps the Minister will write to me about this. I am raising it now, but my later question was transferred to written answer for various reasons. I would be concerned if the European Commissioner facilitated an illegal act off El Aaiún in former Spanish Sahara. The Council of Ministers agreed by a qualified majority to go along with the Commission.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Did the Deputy say that the question had been transferred?

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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It was a supplementary priority question transferred to written answer so I will have to wait for a reply. It would be worthwhile to face up to the fact that the Commission, in a flagrant breach of law, granted exploration and fishing rights off the shores of an occupied country. Some Ministers at the Council felt that it prejudiced a solution in the dispute between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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There are situations where the EU negotiates with African coastal states on fishing rights and oil exploration. As Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, I have had some difficulty with those agreements over the years. However, that does not have much relevance to the question. One must deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis.