Thursday, 14 March 2019
Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage (Resumed)
I have just produced evidence to the effect that the Government sometimes does publish advice from the Attorney General, and that is when it is politically beneficial. The Minister replied by saying there was a court case. The advice I am talking about relates to the London Fisheries Convention, which is a key point of contention and a major concern for fishery organisations. I am not talking about advice around the court case, nor asking for it to be published.
The Minister said the optics of fishermen from County Down going to court were terrible, with which I agree. However, I am aware of a fisherman from Donegal who has a Northern licence. He was pulled in by the sea-fisheries protection body and had all his catch taken from him. It had a significant effect on his livelihood and fines and so on followed. Nobody rushed to bring forward legislation in the wake of his case. It is not the first or only time fishermen have been pulled in on issues related to this legislation. Our objective is to protect the rights of all Irish fishermen.
The Minister said this was about reinstating reciprocity and that the British legislation allowed fishermen based in the Twenty-six Counties to fish off waters in the Six Counties. It is clear from the text of the letter dealing with the voisinagearrangement, which is a kind of gentlemen's agreement, that once the agreement falls on one side, as it did following the Supreme Court decision, it falls on the other side too. The voisinageagreement does not, therefore, exist right now and the only way to reinstate it is to have reciprocity on both sides. The British and Irish should introduce legislation at the same time to give legal guarantees to all Irish fishermen.
The British Fishery Limits Act does not give legal access to Twenty-six Counties fishermen to fish in waters off the Six Counties. The North may be turning a blind eye but I have correspondence from a number of fishermen who say they are being asked to fish in waters without any basis in law for doing so. The Minister wants to give a legal basis to another set of fishermen but those in the Twenty-Six Counties will not get this. He may have received assurances and kind words from the British Government but there is no legal basis for Irish fishermen to fish North and South.That is the case in British and Irish law as matters stand. Let us be clear on that. It is not a question of reciprocity or of how the British are good sorts and we are terrible. That is not the case. Following the Supreme Court decision, there is no legal basis whatsoever in British or Irish law for Irish fishermen to move up and down the coast. That is wrong. As part of the Minister's solution to our difficulties, he needs to engage on this issue.
It is astounding that he referred to reciprocity, given that the British Government announced almost two years ago its intention to withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention. One of the key planks of the Brexiteers' campaign was taking back control of their seas. Prime Minister May has discussed pulling out of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP. How much more can the British Government say about taking control of the UK's seas? It has said it in everything it has communicated. As such, it is important that we be calm at this moment in time. If we can get beyond this period and, I hope, get a deal over the line that protects our interests on the island of Ireland, the next phase will be trade negotiations. Clearly, the British Government seeks to use access to the UK's waters as part of those negotiations. I assume that the Minister has not dealt with this legislation in the past two years because he knows that. He also knows that what we need to do is calmly negotiate fair access to all of our waters in a way that protects our coastal communities' interests. If we reach the trade negotiation phase, that is exactly what will happen. As such, this Bill is premature and unnecessary in the context of the British position. If the British did not have that position, this would have been resolved two years ago.
That is where we stand. It is why the Minister needs to hear the concerns of fishing organisations. He needs to release the Attorney General's advice on these matters. Given that the Government has done so before, it would not be unprecedented and it would be a significant gesture of goodwill. The organisations could then assess the advice and everyone could analyse clearly where we stand.