Thursday, 14 March 2019
Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage (Resumed)
Michael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
I appreciate the spirit in which the debate has been conducted by all Members. Amendments have been proposed by Senators Daly, Wilson and Mac Lochlainn which seek to apply a restriction to the size of sea-fishing boats to which section 10(1)(a) will apply. Amendment No. 3 would limits the size of boats to not more than 15 m in length. Senator Nash seeks to restrict it to not more than 12 m in length. There are a number of difficulties with the proposed amendments. First, the Bill seeks to exclude sea-fishing boats from other countries from fishing within Ireland's six nautical mile zone, except those which have been subject to the voisinage arrangements which provide for access, subject to the same treatment accorded to Irish sea-fishing boats. It is important to remember that the Bill is about reinstating arrangements in the context of existing neighbourhood relations and that our neighbours in the North have not rescinded access for our vessels in the many months since the Supreme Court judgment under which theirs were excluded. Equally, they have not imposed more onerous conditions on our vessels which have continued to enjoy access to fishing waters around Northern Ireland. In short, our neighbours have exercised good grace while we have debated in this House whether we should share with them that which we shared with them for decades.
There is no equivalent blanket restriction on Irish sea-fishing boats of more than 15 m or 12 m in length fishing within the six nautical mile zone. On 21 December 2018 I announced the outcome of the review of trawling activity inside the zone, following an extensive public consultation process which spanned the period from 30 April until 11 June 2018 and attracted more than 900 submissions in which a wide variety of views were expressed.The submissions are published on the Department's website. I carefully considered the issues raised during the public consultation process. Following a detailed evaluation, I decided that from 1 January 2020, fishing vessels over 18 m will be excluded from trawling in inshore waters inside the six nautical mile zone and the baselines. This refers to the overall length of the vessel and applies to trawling activities only. Based on my assessment, I considered that there is a compelling case for excluding trawling by large vessels in coastal waters inside six nautical miles. I am satisfied that there are sufficient fishing opportunities for these vessels outside of six nautical miles. I also believe these actions will provide wider ecosystem benefits, including for nursery areas and juvenile fish stocks. I am very conscious of the exclusive reliance of small-scale and island fishermen on inshore waters. I am also conscious of the benefits this change will bring for such fishermen. I firmly believe that in the medium term, this will provide ecosystem and nursery stock benefits for all fishermen.
I am also mindful of the opportunity these measures will provide for further sustainable development of the small-scale inshore sector, to which the Government has committed in the programme for Government. Vessels from Northern Ireland will also be subject to these restrictions. This is in keeping with the basis on which the voisinagearrangements were formalised in the 1960s, which was continued access subject to the usual regulations which apply to our own vessels. The introduction of these restrictions has been widely welcomed by those involved in Ireland's inshore fisheries sector. I hope Senators will agree that this addresses the concerns on which these amendments are based. While the Bill proposes to restore access to Northern Ireland boats to fish under the terms of the voisinagearrangements, this access is subject to the same conditions that apply to Irish sea-fishing boats. As I said earlier, I intend to introduce an amendment on Report Stage to specify this conditionality of access to give the House a further assurance that there is no question of preferential treatment for Northern Ireland fishing vessels while fishing in our zero to six nautical mile zone.
There has been much scaremongering but the position is that the access arrangements for Northern Ireland boats will not change from what they were before. Northern Ireland fishing boats will simply regain fishing access that they have had for decades under the voisinagearrangements in the zero to six nautical mile zone of the territorial waters of the State. They will also continue to be subject to the same measures that apply to Irish-registered fishing boats. Therefore, I ask the House not to accept the amendments that have been proposed. We need to remember that this Bill is simply about the issue of access. The business of how much anyone fishes, and how they fish, is an entirely separate issue, albeit an important one. This Bill is not the place to seek to remedy concerns about each and every issue arising in the sea-fishing industry.
I want to cover some of the points that have been made by Senators. Not all of them dealt specifically with these issues. I thank Senator Wilson and his Fianna Fáil colleagues for their support in agreeing how to bring this Bill through this House and the Lower House by the end of the month, given the critical timelines that are involved. Obviously, I am quite happy to have further consultations in that context. It is important to put on the record that I have regular and intensive engagement with the fishing industry through the various producer organisations. On the Order of Business this morning, the Leader put on record the number of such meetings and consultations that have taken place, including with the inshore fisheries sector, which now has a really important voice that is equivalent to any of the producer organisations. We do not always determine the agenda for these extensive consultations. These issues have been discussed. I am quite happy to meet the various representatives again before this legislation is finalised.
An effort has been made to portray voisinageas something of a dated value of the 1960s, even though it operated up to two years ago. It was struck down in the Supreme Court in October 2016. I can safely say that up to that point, I had not received any correspondence from anybody saying it should be restricted. All we are seeking to do in this legislation is put it back on a legal footing on a reciprocal basis. Our boats currently go north. Our legislative arrangement was struck down in the Supreme Court. We are responding to that in an appropriate way by reinstating an arrangement that has existed since the 1960s. I think that is the right thing to do.
I take Senator Nash's point that this is about political decisions because there is no imperative from the Supreme Court to legislate. While I respect the Senator's view on this matter, my view is entirely different for reasons that sometimes offend people when they are articulated. I believe intrinsically that this is the right thing to do, regardless of Brexit, the Supreme Court ruling or the 1960s arrangement. I consider myself to be a citizen of the island of Ireland and not just of the Republic of Ireland. I think this arrangement stands up to any scrutiny. That it had to be provided for in the 1960s by way of an exchange of letters is a reflection of the politics of the island. I think it is the right thing to do. The reasons for that could be articulated by reference to the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and the need to build neighbourly relations. I deeply believe this is the right thing to do. These are choices. People have differing views on the matter. I respect those views, but I do not agree with them.
Deputy Nash has suggested that UK boats from Grimsby, Yarmouth and other locations across the UK could stage an Armada-style invasion of our zero to six nautical mile zone. Custom and practice clearly show that this is highly unlikely to happen. It has not happened in 50 years. Of course it is always open to the sovereign Government of the State to monitor constantly what is happening in these areas. If, by some chance, an Armada-style invasion is staged by fishing fleets from the rest of the UK, we will respond appropriately. This legislation merely reinstates something which existed up to October 2016. Nobody bothered a jot about it up to that point until the Supreme Court ruled that it needed a legislative framework in order to continue. That is simply what is at the heart of this Bill. In line with the principle of reciprocity, we are putting it back on the same basis on which our vessels currently go north to fish. By any stretch and by any measurement, that is a politically defensible position which we are proud to proceed with for many of the reasons I have outlined.
Senator Wilson spoke about optics. There is another optic which makes me distinctly uncomfortable, and that is the optic of Irish fishermen in court because of our failure to reinstate the legislative provision. I do not by any means intend to insult this House by using it as a rubber stamp, as the Senator seems to have inferred. The input of this House is part of the legislative process. We published this Bill in haste because we wanted to respond. We felt it was really important. We ran into a juggernaut in the Seanad the last time because our proposal did not receive sufficient support. Perhaps the sight of Irish fishermen in court has crystallised what is at play and at stake in the context of this debate. I appeal to Senators to reflect on that optic and consider whether it is something with which they are entirely comfortable. I am not entirely comfortable with it and neither is the Government. I suspect that most Senators - deep down - are not happy with it.
I have acknowledged that the delivery of access to our zero to six nautical mile zone is not going to fix all of our Brexit woes. Equally, I believe that in the context of the broader debate, our current position is an uncomfortable one for us to be in. Those in the UK can point the finger and say we are out of step on the basis that we are not as generous as they are in terms of access. We want access to their waters in the context of the broader debate on Brexit. One third of the value of our fishing industry comes from fish caught in UK waters. Extending or renewing the reciprocation will not fix Brexit, but it certainly will make this an easier battle for us.We do not want to stand accused, in the dock of public opinion, of having a double standard for saying that we want access to fishing stocks in UK waters to continue but are precious about our own resources and about making them available. It will not fix Brexit for us but we should not willingly occupy a space in which we might be accused of being duplicitous in our approach.
Senator Black mentioned consultation. The previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, set up a proper forum for the inshore fisheries people. There has been a weakness in the voice of the broader fishing community and I am pleased that its voice is now being recognised as equivalent to that of any other producer organisation, and that it is reasserting itself as it looks to realise the potential of the sector. Its members will be part of the further ongoing engagement but there is a need to proceed with this as quickly as possible. If the UK were to crash out on 29 March, there is a possibility that the reinstatement of voisinagewould be much more complex, given that it would be an arrangement between a member state of the European Union and a third country. Annexe 1 of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, recognises voisinagearrangements between member states but if the arrangement is renewed after the UK becomes a third country, there is a significant question mark over our ability to proceed.
Senator Mac Lochlainn raised a number of points about consultation and about whom to meet. There are established parties and I will proceed to meet with them. He also asked about the legal advice from the Attorney General which is, for good reason, never made available to anybody else.