Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
97. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if negotiations will begin immediately with the French Government to cease its military exercise in order to protect fishermen, fishing vessels and the environment, given that Irish fishermen have again been warned of risks to their safety considering the nature of these exercises which will take place off the southern coast of Ireland outside of territorial waters but within the Irish exclusive economic zone. [33485/22]
Last week, the French navy made contact with the Irish Government to state it was carrying out a military exercise off the south coast. This is the second time in a few months that the Government of another country has contacted our country to state it would be carrying out military exercises within Irish territorial waters. Has this French military exercise been put off permanently or for a few days? Has it just been moved a few feet outside our territorial waters?
We have been in contact with our French counterparts on this issue and got assurances from them that there will not be any French vessels in the Irish exclusive economic zone, EEZ, during these exercises. It is important to differentiate between Irish territorial waters and the Irish EEZ, which involves international waters for which Ireland is responsible. They are different things. Ireland's territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from our shore. Ireland exercises sovereignty within our territorial seas, subject to the relevant rules of international law. Military vessels of other states may not conduct exercises within territorial seas except with ministerial consent. Diplomatic clearance procedures are in place to consider requests for such permissions but such requests are rare.
In this case, it was not a request to come into Irish territorial waters. It was a notification to the Irish Aviation Authority regarding the potential for exercises off the coast of France to impact on a small portion of Ireland's EEZ. There is a big difference between those two things. We have expressed concern, as we have done previously, in respect of military exercises taking place within the EEZ. Countries are entitled to apply for that and it is not a breach of international law or anything. In the context of the EEZ, which is different from territorial waters, we are not entitled to refuse them without good reason. In this case, the relationship with France is particularly good. Obviously, we have spoken to the French authorities on the matter and I am happy that they confirmed there will not be any French vessels inside our EEZ and certainly not inside our territorial waters in the context of those exercises.
I thank the Minister for providing clarity. It is a major concern to Irish fishermen that these activities by other countries are increasing. It is a danger to the lives and incomes of fishermen. They may have to leave a particular area if there is disruption to their fishing activities. Their incomes have been struck down hard in recent years. They cannot take another hit but they are being expected to do so. Obviously, the cost of fuel is another massive issue for fishermen. It is a significant crisis. They are fighting for survival. The Russians did it a few months ago and the French coming along now. How many more countries are expected to try to surround our territorial waters and carry out their military activities? Is this a new move by other countries or is it something that has been happening for several years, unknown to the Irish people?
It is not common but it happens. What happened here was not unusual. The Irish Aviation Authority was informed of the exercises via standard procedures and the Department of Transport has issued a marine notice to this effect. As a close partner, however, the Government has remained in close contact with French authorities and will continue to do so in the coming period.
I compliment the Irish South and West Fisher Producers Organisation. Its involvement in terms of being highly vocal in raising the concerns of fishermen and environmentalists in terms of marine ecosystems in the context of military exercises in the open sea has been very welcome.
I thank the group for that. It has raised the profile of this issue in a way that has been very helpful. I assure the Deputy that we have also been busy in terms of our diplomatic channels, not just with France but with other countries as well, in recent months.
I thank the Minister for his reply. He said these occurrences are not common but, in fact, they have happened twice in the past few months. He is right in his praise for the role of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation in the first incident. It has been very vocal on behalf of the fishermen it represents and their livelihoods and safety at sea. The group has also been speaking about the dangers from such incidents for marine life, including fish, dolphins and whales, and the danger to the environment and our neutrality. We are meant to be a neutral country. It looks like these activities, or the requests to have them happen, are being stepped up within our waters.
The Minister did not answer my question about whether the French military exercise has been put off permanently or for a few days? We were informed a couple of days ago that the French were trying to go ahead with it. Is it completely off the agenda for now or is it just being moved a few feet outside our territorial waters?
The answer to the Deputy's last question is that it is a matter for France. My job is to be well informed in regard to what is happening within our EEZ and our territorial waters. It really is a matter for France in terms of its own security exercises and so on outside of that.
Military exercises or manoeuvres are traditionally recognised as being a part of the freedom of the high seas, as captured under Article 87 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS. These rights are transcribed directly into the EEZs of coastal states. Under international law, including UNCLOS, states are entitled to carry out naval exercises in another state's EEZ. It is not unusual for naval ships or vessels of other states to carry out training exercises within the Irish EEZ or to make passage through the area. This is not in any way an infringement of our international territory in terms of international law. While foreign ministers are not obliged in most cases to inform the coastal authorities of their proposed activities, the Naval Service has collated some data on encounters with foreign navies in the Irish EEZ over the past number of years.
We are watching the situation closely but nothing that has happened over the past number of months is a breach of international law. It is because of our good diplomatic relations with other countries that we sometimes can change the direction of a decision by another country.