Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Rockall Island Ownership
I am disappointed that neither a Minister nor a Minister of State from either Department could be here to take this question, though I acknowledge that they may be abroad on official business. Irish fishing vessels have fished unhindered in these waters for many decades, and did so prior to our membership of the European Union. This country has never recognised the UK's claim to the waters off Rockall. While the UK has claimed sovereignty, it has never sought to claim fishing rights or gas or oil deposits in the area.
I am very concerned by the Taoiseach's response in the House today. He said that while we are members of the European Union, we have a right to fish there but that, post Brexit, things may change. That is a very serious statement and it weakens our case to continue fishing there post Brexit.
I seek clarity on that. The other point I want to make is that it has been suggested that other parties were aware of discussions taking place at ministerial and official level over the past two years. I am sure other parties will speak for themselves but my party has never been aware of these discussions. I am disappointed that the Government could not have made us aware. The Minister wanted meetings with the Opposition when voisinagewas an issue. Both Ministers will have to convene a meeting of the spokespersons and brief us fully.
I share Deputy Gallagher's concern that no Minister with responsibility for this area is here to deal with this issue. This issue is highly topical and the Ministers should have made themselves available to the Dáil and should have known that this would come up. The issue of Rockall has been contentious for many years. The Government has said that it is surprised it is coming up but we see from statements made that the Scottish Government has been raising it for a long time. How can the Government be surprised that it is coming up when it has known that it is an issue? It has kept this issue secret from everybody. Perhaps it is surprised that it has been made public. That could be the only thing the Government is surprised about. I am also very concerned about the Taoiseach's statement today in which he said that he accepts that Rockall is part of the UK exclusive economic zone. If that is the case, what is the issue? Does he accept that? Will the Minister of State provide clarification on that because it is vitally important?
I echo the points made about no relevant Minister or Minister of State being here to deal with this important issue because it affects fishermen right here, right now. Some fishermen have decided not to take the risk of fishing the waters off Rockall, which they have always done. These actions are putting their livelihoods and income streams at jeopardy. Other fishermen have decided to fish and are currently doing so because it is allowed under the EU Common Fisheries Policy. They have done so for years and it has never been an issue. It is absolutely shocking that they learnt last Friday, at the same time as ourselves, that a dispute has been ongoing for months about which they were never informed.
It is shocking that last month, when the Tánaiste, the Minister responsible for fishing and officials knew about this, the Taoiseach sat down with the Scottish First Minister and did not raise a peep about this stand-off. I asked the Taoiseach this morning whether he would lift up the phone and talk to the Scottish First Minister. He said no. He is making it very clear that this is going to be dealt with at official level. We need, first and foremost, to defend the rights of Irish fishermen in all instances. There are serious questions being asked. Will a counsel be appointed in Scotland to deal with any legal cases? Will all income streams that potentially will be lost be recovered? What types of support will the Irish Government provide? What support will be given by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority if attempts are made to board vessels and to arrest our fishermen?
I heard about this on the news last Friday, the same as every other Deputy in the Chamber. It is disgraceful that this has been going on for two years. I have been the fisheries spokesperson for my party since I first came in here in 2002 and not once was I informed that this was going on or of the problems that exist. I am not really surprised. Successive Governments have behaved disgracefully with regard to the fleets fishing off our coasts. They were sold out in 1972. The overwhelming majority of fishermen and fisherwomen have been neglected and abandoned by the Government and the State. I really admire Iceland and the Faroe Islands for how they defended their fishing rights and their fishermen and fisherwomen. They were prepared to physically resist any attempts to encroach on their rights. Scotland's actions are putting down a marker. It has to do with a lot more than fishing. This House will stand fully behind the Government if it is prepared to stand by our fishermen and fisherwomen and to protect their rights because it is our rights we are fighting for.
The Minister, Deputy Creed, sends his apologies. He cannot be here today because he is in Japan on official business. He has asked me to take this Topical Issue debate for him and to extend his apologies. He will be happy to provide more clarity to the Members opposite when he is back in the House. In the meantime, he has asked me to give this reply on his behalf.
Ireland’s position is that there is no basis for excluding Irish fishing vessels from the Rockall waters as they are legitimately pursuing EU fishing opportunities and have done so unhindered for decades. Deputies will be aware that the Tánaiste recently received a formal letter of notice from the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Ms Fiona Hyslop, stating that Scotland would deploy vessels in the Rockall area to take enforcement action against Irish vessels found fishing within 12 miles of Rockall from last weekend onwards.
We do not accept that there is any justification for enforcement action against Irish vessels fishing legitimately in these waters. The United Kingdom claims sovereignty over Rockall and thus a 12-mile territorial sea around it. The United Kingdom first made its claim of sovereignty over Rockall in 1955 and sought to incorporate it as part of the UK in its domestic law by virtue of the Island of Rockall Act 1972. The Irish Government has never sought to claim sovereignty over Rockall. Its position has been and remains that it does not accept the UK’s claim to sovereignty over Rockall, which it regards as forming part of the UK’s exclusive economic zone and, accordingly, part of European Union waters under the Common Fisheries Policy, to which the principle of equal access for the vessels of all EU member states applies. Irish vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades fishing haddock, squid and other species.
The Minister, Deputy Creed, met representatives of the Irish fishing sector on Friday last to inform them of the letter from the Scottish authorities. He also confirmed that Ireland’s position with regard to Rockall had not changed. The industry representatives explained that Ireland’s main fisheries in the Rockall area are for haddock and squid and both fisheries are of substantial economic importance to our fishing fleet based in Greencastle, Killybegs, Castletownbere and other ports around the coast. I know that the industry was appreciative of that engagement but was also extremely concerned at the possibility that unjustified enforcement action might be taken against it.
We have built a strong and positive relationship with Scotland, to our mutual benefit, over many years. The Minister hopes we can use that close relationship to find a way to resolve these matters and to remove the threat of enforcement action against Irish vessels. Dialogue is continuing between the Irish and Scottish Governments and there have been close contacts at official level over recent days. It has now been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will take place, led by senior officials from both Administrations. We are hopeful that on this basis the latest difficulties can be de-escalated.
I accept that the Minister is out of the country but on his return he should immediately convene a meeting of all of the Opposition spokespersons because we are in this together. We want to be helpful and to fight this with a united front. I am extremely worried following the Taoiseach's scripted response today. Reading from his script he said that things will change following Brexit. He also said - listen to this - "One thing that is often not fully appreciated is that Irish fishermen take a lot of fish [35% of all the fish we take] out of UK waters." What about all of those who take fish out of Irish waters? This is a form of defeatism from the Taoiseach. He and his Ministers should strengthen their resolve. We want to continue fishing those waters as we always have, even after Brexit. We cannot accept the ceding of our rights to the UK. This is not only about Rockall but about fishing in UK waters post Brexit.
It is vitally important that we assert our rights. This Government and former Governments have been guilty of letting this issue slide, letting it sit and doing nothing about it because we have both been members of the European Union and it therefore did not matter. Now it has come into sharp focus again because of the likelihood of the UK withdrawing from the European Union, which is causing this dispute to raise its head again. Regardless of what the European Union has had to say on the matter, it has been criminal of successive Governments, including this one, to refuse to deal with this issue. It is a real problem, which is now coming home to roost. The Government will have to deal with and to live with it. The Government should be making sure that our rights are asserted and that our fishermen will be able to continue fishing in this area regardless of what happens in respect of Brexit.
When the Minister, Deputy Creed, returns he should sit down with all the representatives of the various parties and brief us thoroughly on what is happening and what he intends to do. As representatives of our respective communities, we have an entitlement to be able to brief fishing organisations and prepare a plan, legally if necessary, to challenge this illegal act by Scotland. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to take that to Minister Creed, to ensure that is the case. The legal aspect of it can be fought under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to determine whether that or otherwise is the case. There is a need for dialogue and for us to be briefed properly. We should not find out on the "News at One" on a Friday that this act has taken place and has been going on for two years without us knowing anything about it.
There are two issues. This needs to be resolved quickly because it is impacting fishermen now. God forbid, as we heard from the Scottish Minister that they will enforce the procedures. This means boarding a vessel, directing it to port, the powers to arrest individuals and to place sanctions such as impounding the vessel including its gear and the fish on board. That is how drastic this is. These multimillion euro ships being tied up at port could seriously impact the owner of the vessel and the families of the fishermen on board. It needs to be resolved.
I do not understand why the Taoiseach is refusing - even quietly or privately - to lift up the phone to his counterpart in Scotland and to raise this issue. Many years ago Paddy Harte stood up in this Chamber and said he represented the interests of Rockall because it was a part of his constituency. The Minister of State said we never claimed ownership of it. If he looks at the records going back, he will see that we never accepted the jurisdiction of Rockall because we believed it was part of our jurisdiction at that time.
I am sure nobody is more frustrated with the timing of the trip to Japan than the Minister himself, having to leave on the cusp of this. I think everybody in the House appreciates that it was not his wish to avoid engagement with any of the Deputies opposite. I am certain he will be more than happy to engage with them on his return. I will certainly pass on the sentiments expressed by the Deputies present. I do not think there will be any difficulty there with the Minister.