Thursday, 14 March 2019
Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee Stage (Resumed)
Senators and parties who are minded to submit amendments on Report Stage cannot just come in fresh. If Senators wish to discuss an amendment on Report Stage, it would have to be raised with the Minister in today in some form. If a Senator does not speak to the section today, he or she cannot table amendments on Report Stage. Some discussion on the relevant amendment - however shallow or deep - should be made today to allow Senators, parties or groups to come back in and table the amendment next week.
Senator Norris is not in the Chamber today but, as the Cathaoirleach said, the amendment has been formally moved. I will be happy to withdraw that amendment with a view to possibly resubmitting it on Report Stage so we can discuss it in more detail.
I thank Senator Nash. Senator Norris has proposed an amendment that would seek to remove section 10(1)(a) from the Bill. The effect of this proposed amendment would be to remove the principle of access for sea-fishing boats owned and operated in Northern Ireland to fish in our zero to six nautical mile zone. Quite frankly, I am perplexed at this position from a self-described southern unionist, particularly considering that the authorities in Northern Ireland are continuing to allow access to Irish sea-fishing boats to fish in their equivalent zone. Let us remember that the Supreme Court upheld the High Court finding that the voisinagearrangements are not invalid but, as it stands, there is insufficient provision for them in domestic law.
This Bill seeks to address what the Supreme Court identified was required, which is to give the arrangements a legal footing and cement our ongoing relationship with Northern Ireland. Consequently, I cannot support the Senator's proposed amendment. Thevoisinage, or neighbourhood, arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland have provided reciprocal fishing access for more than 50 years. These arrangements have allowed boats from Northern Ireland to fish in coastal waters in Ireland. The arrangements have also allowed, and continue to allow, Irish registered boats access to fish in coastal waters in Northern Ireland.
The Government approved the preparation of a legislative amendment, which is this Bill, to address the issues raised by the Supreme Court judgment. The Bill was published in February 2017 with a view to restoring, as expediently as possible, the arrangements which have long been in existence to provide access for fishing. We are here again today to see if this Bill can make better progress this time.This Bill sets out a proposed legislative amendment to address the issue of providing sufficient legal provision for Northern Ireland boats to resume reciprocal fishing access under the voisinagearrangements. Section 1 of the Bill proposes to do this by amending section 10 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. The proposed new section 10 continues to assert Ireland's exclusive right to fish within the exclusive fishery limits of the State by maintaining previous provisions. It also explicitly provides for access to fish by sea-fishing boats owned and operated in Northern Ireland within the zero to six nautical miles of the baseline of the State's exclusive fishery limits.
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. It is therefore my intention to introduce an amendment on Report Stage to specify this conditionality of access to give further assurance to the House that there is no question of preferential treatment for Northern Ireland vessels while fishing in our zero to six-mile zone.
In December 2018, I announced the introduction of restrictions on vessels over 18 m in length trawling inside six nautical miles to come into effect from 1 January 2020. Northern Irish vessels will also be subject to these restrictions. This is in keeping with the basis on which the voisinagearrangements were formalised in the 1960s, continuing access subject to the usual regulations which applied to our own vessels. This is consistent with the Supreme Court judgment that has brought us all here. While there has been much scaremongering, the access arrangements for Northern Ireland boats will not change from what they were previously. Northern Ireland 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.
The Minister is aware that on a cross-party basis in this House, we have agreed on a compromise that we will only take Committee Stage today. We are telling the Minister and his officials that, before he comes back here on Report Stage, he needs to demonstrate that he has engaged in meaningful consultation with the representatives of fishermen across the coast. I suggest he meets the groups which made presentations to the Oireachtas committee. The Minister and his officials have access to the transcripts of their presentations to the committee because they are on the database system here in the Houses of the Oireachtas and I am sure the Minister's officials will have them in their possession. The Minister was fully aware of the concerns of those groups two years ago but unfortunately he has not engaged in any dialogue with them on this legislation in that time. He has not attempted to address their concerns. A round-table discussion with such representative organisations is vital. The Minister should provide to all of us the legal advice he received from the Attorney General that led him to present this legislation as it is today. It is critical that we have access to that legal advice in order that we can properly scrutinise it.
The Minister also needs to demonstrate that this legislation is only for fishing vessels. All sides of this House support what voisinagewas many years ago. We support the principle of Irish fishermen across the island of Ireland being able to access Irish fishing waters but it has to be on a level playing pitch. There has to be a clear legislative footing in both jurisdictions that permits Irish fishermen to fish in Irish waters in vessels and trawlers of a certain size. We need our fisheries managed in a responsible way.
I am sad to say this, but the Minister's departmental officials and his predecessors allowed our mussel fishery to be destroyed. They allowed a natural resource of the Irish people to be destroyed. That led to the Supreme Court decision and those Irish fishermen were forced to go the whole way to the Supreme Court and potentially to impoverish themselves to defend our natural resources against officials working in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who should have been defending our natural resources and our people's constitutional rights. Instead these fishermen had to take the case to defend our natural Irish resources.
It is absolutely critical that, when the Minister finally gets this legislation passed through these Houses, our natural resources are protected-----
I appreciate that. We have, on a cross-party basis, agreed a compromise today and hope the Minister will meet us halfway and in good faith. We hope he will now engage constructively with the full complement of fishing organisations, every single one of which has opposed the Minister's legislation as presented but has supported the principle of all Irish fishermen accessing Irish waters. The challenge for the Minister is to engage constructively and try to address their concerns. When he has done that, perhaps we will proceed with Report Stage.
I reserve the right to resubmit on Report Stage the amendments I submitted on Committee Stage.
Amendments Nos. 2, 4 and 5 are related. Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 are physical alternatives to amendment No. 2. Amendment No. 5 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 4. Amendments Nos. 2, 4 and 5 may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 3, line 15, after “boat” to insert the following:“, not exceeding 12 metres in length and the presence of which has been notified in the prescribed manner, that is”.
In response to the Minister's opening remarks, all of us have looked in close detail at the Supreme Court judgment at issue over the past two and a half years. The legislation before us here today was first introduced to this House in March 2017 and was precipitated by that Supreme Court judgment, which found that the previous voisinagearrangement was fundamentally flawed in that there was no primary legislative footing to give it any foundation. However, the Supreme Court did not say there was an obligation on the Oireachtas to legislate. We are dealing with a political decision to give effect to an arrangement that was in place since the 1960s and was found to be flawed on the basis that there was no legislative underpinning for it.
These are political decisions that we have to make here today. The Supreme Court, of course, cannot insist that the Oireachtas legislate, it can only advise us that we may want to legislate because it is a constitutionally separate arm of the State. That is an important point. This is about political will and because it was the right thing to do in the context of the Ireland of the 1960s does not mean that this is the right thing to do today.I do not believe this is the right thing to do by fishermen in the Republic of Ireland. As a sovereign Parliament, it is our responsibility to represent and work in the interests of our constituents. I have no difficulty with being mindful of the circumstances in which fishermen in the North find themselves. However, there is a long history here and it is not as positive as some might like to suggest. We can talk about the theory and practice and the legislative realities all we like but for Republic of Ireland fishermen, the reality is that there is very little fishing going on in the North for a variety of reasons. If we are taking the view that we should in primary law extend a right to those from outside this jurisdiction to fish on the Irish inshore, we have no guarantee that the UK Parliament is going to give a reciprocal right to us. My understanding is that there is no primary legislation in place governing the voisinagearrangement that would provide for the rights of Republic of Ireland fishermen - they are men by and large to the best of my knowledge - to fish lawfully in the UK.
I have difficulty coming to terms with this idea. How do we restrict permission to fish on the Republic of Ireland inshore to Northern Ireland owned, managed and operated vessels only? It is impossible. There is no definition of what constitutes a Northern Ireland owned and operated vessel. There are UK vessels. It therefore follows that vessels owned and operated in Wales, Scotland and elsewhere, and vessels owned by larger corporations operating out of Northern Ireland, would have a right to fish with impunity on the Irish inshore. As Senator Mac Lochlainn said, we have seen the damage that has been done to the mussel seedbeds on the south-east coast of Ireland. I am aware of the damage that has been done in respect of brown crab off Clogher Head and razor clam fisheries in north County Dublin and elsewhere. We need to be mindful of that. Even though the legislation itself does not necessarily relate to fish stock management, we cannot be blind to that reality. We need to be very clear on how we are going to manage our stock.
I thought this was a bad idea two years ago and nothing I have heard to date has convinced or persuaded me otherwise. I have a genuine issue with this legislation. I understand and appreciate the political bind that the Minister finds himself in. I understand that we are in a heated set of circumstances at present, given what happened in Dundalk Bay a few weeks ago. However, this is not the first time there has been an arrest or detention of vessels that have been fishing unlawfully in the Irish inshore. It just happens that we were alerted to it on the national news in an alarmist fashion, I hasten to add, given the context of Brexit and so on. This is a politically expedient move. Like Senator Mac Lochlainn and others, I am concerned that fishing industry representatives and trawler owners, who are on the front line of this issue, have not been consulted in any meaningful way.
I am also concerned that it has taken two years for this issue to return to the House after it was removed from the agenda in May 2017. The Minister could not then find a majority or consensus in the House to move the issue on. I do not think it is acceptable to anybody in the House that we merely return to it two years later because there is a contrived political panic about the issue. We need more time to reflect. I have serious issues with it for many reasons, of which the Minister and Members are aware. It was through gritted teeth and in the spirit of compromise that the House decided to debate the Bill on Committee Stage and it will progress no further until such time as we have more satisfaction as to how our fishing communities can be supported and how loopholes and other issues in the legislation can be addressed. I make no apologies for representing the interests of Republic of Ireland fishermen, as their interests are paramount for me.
I concur with Senators Mac Lochlainn and Nash on the attempt to force this legislation, with which my party broadly agrees, through all Stages here today without proper consultation with the various organisations and individuals that have genuine concerns about it. We take grave exception to this House being used merely for optics. Unfortunately, that is what was attempted today in trying to push the legislation though all Stages having left it sitting for the last two years without any meaningful consultation with stakeholders, with our respective parties or with individual Independents.
Nobody in this House minds sitting for 24 hours to pass all sections of necessary or emergency legislation. This is not emergency legislation. We will not be taken for granted. We have reluctantly agreed to take Committee Stage today. We want to see meaningful meetings taking place, by which I do not mean rushing to the phone to have a two-minute conversation with somebody to tick a box. We need the Minister to sit down with the various stakeholders and discuss their concerns. He may then come back to us with his proposed amendments for Report Stage. In the spirit of what this legislation should be about, we will then come to some compromise with the Minister.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach outlined that we should indicate if we intend to submit amendments on Report Stage. Fianna Fáil intends to submit amendments in respect of this section. One of our Report Stage amendments will provide that a sea-fishing boat means any ship, boat or other vessel of whatsoever kind used for sea fishing. We will propose, in page 3, after new subsection 2, to insert a new subsection 3, providing that 1(a) and (b) will no longer apply should the United Kingdom exit the European Union on 29 March 2019 without a deal, or formally withdraw from the fisheries convention done at London on 9 March 1964; and unless an equivalent bilateral is put in place allowing for each jurisdiction to access their respective waters. We will withdraw our Committee Stage amendment as the Minister has assured us he will address the issues at a later Stage, which I assume will be on Report Stage. I thank the Minister for attending the House.
A Leas-Chathaoirligh, I really have to raise a point of order. We have sat through 70 hours of debate on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. I think it is out of order to be asking Members to shorten their commentary when we have sat through 72 hours on other legislation. People have gone on and on.
I am ruling on this as Chair. We are on Senator Nash's amendment to section 1. The amendments can all be discussed together, as the Senators have agreed. I will come to Senator Mac Lochlainn next. I call Senator Mulherin. I would appreciate it if the Senator kept her contribution appropriate to Committee Stage.
It is important to note that the Supreme Court judgment which upheld the finding of the High Court did not say that voisinagearrangements are not valid but only that we do not have sufficient provision in domestic law to support the arrangements whereby Northern Ireland fishermen can come into the six-mile zone. The Supreme Court did note, however, that the arrangements were "a sensible recognition at official level of practice and tradition" whereby fishing boats have traditionally fished neighbouring waters.
Senator Nash is right. Our primary responsibility is always to the citizens of our own country. We do not want to be insular on any issue however. The Minister has to see the bigger picture. We try, in all things, to operate in harmony with Northern Ireland where possible. Now more than ever, in light of all of the concerns in respect of the fallout from Brexit, we have to be the bigger person and draw circles of inclusiveness. That notwithstanding, there are concerns with regard to the regulation of fishing boats other than Irish and Northern Irish fishing boats. I believe the Minister has listened to these. He has recognised the principle that everybody should be subject to the same law. There should be equality of treatment as regards fishermen North and South. In pursuing this principle, issues of sustainability which are not dealt with directly in the legislation can also be broached. At the end of the day, it is about having sustainable fisheries and about our fisheries not being abused.
I welcome the fact that there will be further engagement with the fishermen in the Republic who have concerns about this legislation to see what further can be done to assuage those concerns and to have fulsome debate about the issues and the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve today.
We are on Committee Stage of the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill as well, by the way. We have not got past Committee Stage after 90 hours. God almighty. As the Minister knows, the amendments we are debating relate to length of the vessels. Some have proposed 15 m and others have proposed 12 m. As a gesture of goodwill, I am not going to press any votes on these amendments today. I am just going to make the case for them. We have asked the Minister to engage with the fishing representative organisations that presented to the Oireachtas committee. They are all on the system. They are much better qualified than anybody in this Chamber to give an expert opinion on how to make this legislation work for everybody and on how to ensure a level playing pitch for everybody.
It is critical that we protect our precious inland fisheries. We have vulnerable fishermen all around our coast and we need to protect this precious resource. In fairness, the European Union has given us the ability to do so. It is important that we do. I again point to the disaster in respect of mussel seed fisheries. One can look at the number of tonnes harvested. The records are there. A dramatic reduction has taken place. There has been a lack of management of that precious natural resource and fishery. It is an absolute sin. The outcome of the case in the Supreme Court has given the Minister an opportunity to protect that fishery at last and to make sure that it is managed.
One of the big elements missing from all of our fisheries across this island is a managed sustainable approach. Also missing is - God forbid - a defence of the interests of our Irish fishermen and fishing communities around our coast and their access to what is our own natural resource to create some prosperity and to allow people in those communities to have a decent livelihood. The Minister must know that these communities feel they have historically not been listened to and that they have been sacrificed for other interests at European level. That is how people feel right across the board, from the three men going out on a crabbing boat in Inishowen to those on large vessels leaving various ports around our coast, particularly the smaller operators.
It is critical that the introduction of this legislation is seen as an opportunity to remedy wrongs. Nobody in this Chamber believes that we should keep trawlers from the Six Counties out or that we should prevent Irish fishermen from accessing Irish waters. This is an opportunity for the Minister to get it right and to remedy the wrongs that have happened. I appeal to the Minister. This has been a missed opportunity for two years. As I have said in the joint committee, in this Chamber, and in other chambers, I believe the Minister is a decent and honourable man. Our objectives are the same. I am not into that game at all but I believe this is not being handled properly. I urge the Minister to take the opportunity to have round-table meaningful dialogue over the coming weeks to try to address the fishermen's concerns and to see that we are all on the one page.
We are all, as we should be, trying to protect the interests of all - I use the word "all" deliberately - of our fishermen around the coast. We need a level playing pitch. I have seen some of the draft amendments from the fishing representative organisations. They are grounded in common sense. They are not about greed or about keeping others out so that they can keep what they have. They are about sustainable fisheries, a level playing pitch, fairness, and defending Irish interests. There has been a huge mistake here. Let us start as we mean to go on from today. As I have said, I am not going to press the amendments. I know the Minister has gone some way towards addressing these particular issues, but there are other issues to be addressed.
The Minister is very welcome to the Chamber today. The manner is which this Bill has been brought before us today will impact on my position on the amendments that are up for discussion. I am very glad that we are only taking Committee Stage of this Bill today. The proposal to remove it from the schedule entirely would have been even more appropriate. When this Bill came before the Seanad two years ago, it was made very clear to the Government that it should only proceed if it was going to engage seriously with the affected fishermen. I agree with Senator Mac Lochlainn. The Minister is a very good man and very passionate about this issue. He is doing a good job but, with all due respect, the overwhelming majority of feedback from fishermen is that this dialogue with the fishermen has not happened over the past two years. The fact that a last-minute phone call was made last night further confirms this view. It is only fair that those who will be significantly impacted by this legislation are listened to. Many of them are in the Gallery today. We are pushing this through days before 29 March, the deadline for Brexit. At this crucial point we have no idea what the Irish fishing environment will look like after Brexit.
I will speak in support of Senator Nash's amendment. We are worried about conservation, people's livelihoods, and the capacity for huge trawlers to take advantage of this agreement. The reality is that we are living in a very different environment from that of the 1960s.It is now so much easier for huge international companies to register in the North and abuse the system. That is the worry. Senator Nash's proposal attempts to strike a balance to protect smaller fishermen, smaller boats and their fish stocks. If we are to have an agreement, some protection such as this is necessary. I fully support the amendment and commend the Minister on doing his best to deal with this issue. It would be great if further discussions were held with fishermen to hear what they have to say. They are worried and anxious and all they want is to be heard.
It could well do. It is two years since the Bill was introduced on Second Stage. Committee Stage was pulled because the House did not support the Government in proceeding at the time. Now it has been brought before us at a time when there is a vacuum within political, economic and territorial relationships on these islands. Many interested sectors within the economy do not know what the future holds. Our fishermen represent one of those sectors. I am not just referring to the fishermen who will be impacted on by this legislation. All fishermen find themselves not knowing what the future holds, with concerns about quotas, the Common Fisheries Policy and the United Kingdom trying to take back its fishing rights. There are many questions. It is a time of transition and the Bill only adds to the confusion. The timing could not be worse. Therefore, the decision taken by this House today to kick to touch Report Stage of the Bill until meaningful consultations take place with all of the key stakeholders is a sensible one. I have spoken to my colleague from County Donegal, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Pat the Cope Gallagher, about the Bill. He is acutely concerned about its implications and he is a man with key expertise in the fishing sector. Many concerned individuals, some of whom are here to represent their interests, have not been consulted, while key issues have not been addressed.
The Supreme Court has ruled and I have read some of its judgment. It has accepted that mussel seed is a natural resource under Article 10 of the Constitution and that that natural resource must be protected by law. The Bill is in stark contrast to that decision. I understand what the Government is trying to do. It is trying to change the legislation, but we do not know what it will mean. We know from reading the objectives of the Bill that it will effectively allow vessels owned and operated in Northern Ireland to fish within the six-mile limit. That provision is very wide. Providing for Northern Irish-owned vessels is one thing, but providing for vessels operated in Northern Ireland is completely different. There are many concerns. I have concerns about the way the legislation was brought forward in the first place. For instance, there was no pre-legislative scrutiny. There was no regulatory impact analysis attached to it outlining the implications it could have, not only for the fishing industry but also our natural resources. No environmental impact assessment was carried out. If the Supreme Court recognises that this voisinage agreement will have an impact on our natural resources, surely under European law an environmental impact assessment, EIA, is required to be carried out. Applications for planning permission within the confines of a special area of conservation, SAC, require an EIA to be carried out. This legislation will affect our natural resources within the six-mile limit, but no plan for how, if implemented, it will be managed is attached or can be seen.
The issue of concern for many of the fishermen to whom I have spoken in the Republic, whose interests we represent in this House, is that fishing resources in the waters of the Six Counties have been exploited extensively to date. This legislation will allow those who have exploited those resources to come south and exploit the resources of the Republic also. That is the contention of the fishing sector. I am not qualified to say whether it is factual, but the fact remains that the Department should have consulted the individuals involved to teased out some of these issues. As has been said, meaningful consultation must take place. That does not mean making a telephone call but holding meetings and engaging in consultation around the table. That has to happen before Report Stage. Many questions remain unanswered. Political expediency or trying to serve the Taoiseach's objectives is not a good enough reason to-----
I appreciate everything the Senator is saying about the fishing industry, but, unfortunately, none of those points arises in dealing with amendments Nos. 2 to 5, inclusive, which are being discussed together. I have, however, given the Senator some latitude.
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.
Never. A related part of this issue is still before the courts so I am constrained as regards the comments I can make on it, even if in other circumstances I would be willing to make them. It was said that this involved the management of a natural resource. The lack of an Executive in Northern Ireland is not making it any easier to proceed with the management arrangements that are provided for fisheries. These arrangements are not about access; they are about management and we should not conflate the two in the context of this legislation. People talk about voisinageas if it was out of date, conveniently ignoring the fact that it existed up to October 2016.
I am pleased that Members will not proceed with amendments at this stage. I look forward to resuming the debate on the principles underpinning the amendments on Report and Final Stages.
A news report I am looking at states that the Government published the advice of the Attorney General on the referendum on the eighth amendment, so the Government does sometimes publish the Attorney General's advice.
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.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 3, line 15, after “operated” to insert “by person(s) resident”.
This is an important amendment and I would like a dialogue on it today. It relates to the issue of residency. We are all on the one page as regards restoring access for all Irish vessels within a certain size to Irish waters around our coast and ensuring a level playing pitch. That is an objective on which we can all agree. The problem is that the good intentions relating to voisinagewere abused. A loophole developed over the years, particularly in the mussel industry, whereby major multinationals took advantage of having an address in the North to plunder Irish natural resources opportunistically to the extent that our seed mussel beds have been devastated. The difference in tonnage between 2016 and 2018 demonstrates that devastation.
It is critical that the residency issue be addressed. If the argument is that we need to protect the right of vessels in Kilkeel to fish in Dundalk Bay, that is no problem. If they have an address in County Down, Derry or Antrim and are within a certain size, they can go ahead. That will be done on the basis of a level playing pitch. However, if they are major multinationals using a loophole in our goodwill agreement - which is what it was - to fish, it is not right. This is one of the core issues that should have been defined in the first draft of the Bill and the Bill as presented to the Houses. The Minister should have clearly defined that accessing our precious resources is for Irish fishermen on the island of Ireland who can demonstrate their residency and attachment to the land. We are not discussing going out to sea, the CFP and super trawlers. That is another day's battle. Rather, we are discussing precious inland fisheries.
No, the Minister is right to correct me. These are precious inshore fisheries, a vulnerable area that should be available to fishermen on this island.
I will not press this amendment. I just wanted to commence the dialogue. The fishing organisations will argue this issue with the Minister. We must all fight it tooth and nail. He needs to show that these are natural, precious and vulnerable resources that must be managed properly. We cannot have another Klondike rush in these beds. They must be managed sensibly and sustainably and should be available to locals to develop their communities. We must close the Klondike rush down. If the Minister can demonstrate to me that there is a way of doing so other than through my residency amendment, let us have that dialogue over the coming weeks. This amendment will be resubmitted on Report Stage unless I can be convinced that there is another solution.
I thank the Senator for raising the issue. Its complexity is reflected in the fact that, a moment ago, he described his understanding that a fisherman from Donegal with a Northern licence had been detained by the SFPA.
I ask the Senator to reflect on that matter in the context of his broader point. It is worth reflection.
The Senator's amendment seeks to limit the application of the proposed section 10(1)(a) to persons resident in Northern Ireland. At the time of confirming the voisinagearrangements in the 1960s, there was also reference to the requirement to be permanently resident in the Six Counties. With the passage of time, however, we must acknowledge the changed realities within which we operate. Not least of these changes is that citizens of EU member states, including Ireland, have the right to reside in any part of the EU. Freedom of movement and residence for persons in the EU is the cornerstone of Union citizenship, established by the Maastricht treaty in 1992.The Senator's proposed amendment is also not compatible with the reality of the corporate nature of ownership of sea-fishing boats, which is not unique to the Irish sea-fishing fleet. As stipulated in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and reinforced by the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the freedom of establishment, and the freedom to provide services, guarantee mobility of businesses within the EU. I would ask the House to recall that this Bill seeks to remedy findings arising from court proceedings taken through the High Court and the Supreme Court. In his judgment at the High Court, Mr. Justice Birmingham noted matters of which the House will wish to be aware. Excerpts from his judgment include, "The structure of the fishing industry in Europe and indeed in Ireland has evolved in the half century since the exchange of letters occurred."
He went on to say:
It may well have been the case that in 1964 boats were owned and operated by individuals and that it was realistic to think in terms of permanently resident individual fishermen. However, almost 50 years on, where vessels are larger and more sophisticated, corporate ownership is now the norm, as is illustrated by the fact that the corporate plaintiffs are each the owners of a vessel. It seems to me that the arrangement entered into is robust enough and flexible enough to deal with the structures of an industry which like other industries can be expected to evolve over time.
The Supreme Court accepted the High Court’s analysis of the arrangement. The following is a quotation from Mr. Justice O’Donnell’s judgment:
In particular I agree that reciprocity is only required at the general level of fishing, and is not required at the level of each species. I also accept that the arrangement must be a flexible one if it is to permit the fishing now carried out. The corollary is however that the present fishing is not within the precise terms of the 1965 correspondence.
I could not accept an amendment which would, in the current circumstances, be illegal to impose. While the Bill proposes to restore access to Northern Ireland boats to fish, under the terms of the voisinage arrangement this access is subject to the same conditions that apply to Irish sea-fishing boats. It is my intention to introduce an amendment on Report Stage to specify this conditionality of access to give further assurances to the House that there is no question of preferential treatment for Northern Ireland vessels while fishing in our zero to six nautical mile zone. I stress again that it is important to remember that this Bill is about reinstating arrangements under existing neighbourhood relations. We can still go North, and by virtue of the Supreme Court decision, they cannot come South. They have not changed the rules for us when we go North. We are only looking to restore that which existed prior to October 2016. Regardless of Brexit or anything else in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, and in the context of harmonious relationships North and South, it is only right and proper that we would restore that reciprocal arrangement.
It is about choices. The Senator made the point about residency but he had earlier made the point about somebody on the Northern Ireland register being resident in Donegal. That is not unique. Neither is it the case that corporate ownership is exclusive to those on the register in Northern Ireland. If we were to exclude corporate ownership as a principle for access to the zero to six nautical mile zone, it would impact on our own sector, perhaps more so.
The example of the Donegal fisherman with a Northern licence is not a sole example. It applies to a minority of inshore fishermen across the entire coast. When we discuss why that is the case, we get to the nub of the issue, namely, we do not have a one-size fits all playing pitch across the island in terms of licences. For example, cost and tonnage are not consistent across the island. It is tempting for fishermen to use the loophole of a Northern address to obtain a licence. As I said, there is not a level playing pitch and it is not fair. These are the issues that need to be resolved. I do not think anybody could argue that it is fair that a person in Kerry or Donegal would have to pay X for a licence while people in the North pay a lot less. People are going to take advantage of an opportunity. We need to address that. We need to ensure there is a level playing pitch, such that every fisherman has the same opportunity to fish in Irish waters.
When it comes to the corporate issue, we get to the nub of the issue again. The headlines in the last couple of weeks have been about two Irish fishermen fishing out of Kilkeel, arrested and taken to court and calling for the issues to be addressed. Who could argue with that? Nobody in this Chamber could do so. The Minister has confirmed today that this legislation legalises access to the zero to six nautical mile zone for inshore fisheries for corporate interests within the European Union.
On a point of order, we are not extending access to anybody other than those to whom we choose to extend it. Anybody within the European Union who is not on the licence in Northern Ireland is not entitled to access under the legislation. The Deputy needs to read it again.
Let us be clear on this issue. We have had this conversation previously in this Chamber and in other places. One of the main issues for the mussel industry is multinationals using addresses in the North of Ireland to access Northern Ireland fisheries to "plunder" our precious natural resource. In regard to tonnage, production collapsed from 29,500 tonnes in 2006 to 6,400 tonnes in 2016. Over ten years, there was a collapse of the mussel fisheries sector. This sector took its case because we are allowing multinational interests to use an address in the North to come in and do that. Am I correct that the Minister is confirming today that this legislation gives that practice legal footing. The Supreme Court took the view that the framework within which this is happening was not legal under Irish law. The Minister, by way of this legislation, is giving that profound injustice a legal footing. This is not about the two vessels from Kilkeel. This is a much bigger issue. A Donegal man had his catch seized by a sea-fisheries protection officer, which was devastating to and a huge hit for him. This man and the men involved in the Kilkeel incident are the people for whom I have compassion. I want legislation that protects them to fish in Irish waters. There is no way I can stand over legislation that provides legal cover for multinationals to plunder our precious natural resource. We have to defend that resource.
We all believe in the European Union and the four pillars of the free movement of people, goods, capital and trade but there are things that we must defend within that European union, including precious natural resources and common sense management. It does not apply to everything. The Minister should, at least, put up a fight. If this is an issue with European law then tell us what it is? If this is impossible under some European directive, tell us what it is? The Minister needs to show us that he is willing to fight the ground for our natural resources. He should, at least, go down fighting on this key issue. That is what we need to see into the future in regard to this serious injustice. This law is not just about the wee boats fishing in Irish waters, it is about much more than that. The Minister knows this. That is the nub of the issue and that is what needs to be resolved.
I have not been in the House for all of this debate but I was following it on the monitor in my office.When does the Minister anticipate that he will meet the organisations involved, that need to be heard in advance of the passing of this legislation? I commend the work of my party colleague, Deputy Gallagher, as well as Members of this House, who have raised this point. We debated it two years ago. I do not think we were found wanting in it being brought back. There may have been difficulties in the Minister's Department but we were willing to sit at any time on any day to deal with it. I certainly was and I am sure most Members would be. When does the Minister intend to meet these people? It is important that they get their hearing and to express their points to him in person and for him to be able to listen to them and to tease out the issues involved.
The plan is to progress this through both Houses before the end of the month. We will engage with Fianna Fáil on that and will meet with the sector and representatives of the industry before the Bill is passed.
We only will have one other sitting week, so that will have to happen before the final sitting week.
I really have nothing further to add to what Senator Mac Lochlainn has said. It is the reality that corporate owners are already present on both the Irish and Northern Ireland register. That is the reality and I cannot proceed or accept an amendment that is illegal in the context of EU law and case law. It simply is not possible to do that. Even if I could, the Senator should be careful what he wishes for. The Supreme Court judgment indicated that the plaintiffs are corporate owners. I do not want to get into the detail because part of that case is still before the court. Corporate ownership is a reflection of the evolution of the industry since the introduction of voisinage. Corner shopkeepers today are limited companies. Corporate ownership is more mainstream now than it was in the 1960s. In the context of the free movement of goods and services and establishment entitlements and so on under EU law, it is not possible for us to be prescriptive about residency or such details. There are people on our register who reflect corporate ownership structures, as there are people on the Northern Ireland register. They move in both directions. The Senator is seeking a situation where we would restrict a reciprocal arrangement for people who are coming from the North that we do not apply to our own. That defeats the purpose of reciprocity and would be illegal.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 3, lines 17 and 18, after “section 85)” to insert “and the boat is not more than 15 metres in length overall”.
I already indicated, in light of what the Minister has said, that we will withdraw this amendment. The Minister committed to looking at what we were trying to achieve with the amendment on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 3, lines 17 and 18, after “section 85)” to insert “and the boat is not more than 12 metres in length overall”.
I will withdraw the amendment, while reserving my right to resubmit it on Report Stage.