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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 1983

Vol. 344 No. 1

Private Notice Questions. - Fishing Boat Incident.

There are a number of questions down to the Minister for Defence and, in order to avoid any misunderstanding, I am calling on the Deputies to read the questions in the order in which they were handed into the office. Deputy McGinley tabled two questions on Private Notice, one addressed to the Minister for Defence and the second to the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry which latter was subsequently transferred to the Minister for Defence. I have allowed both these questions.

Deputy P. Gallagher tabled two questions on Private Notice, one addressed to the Minister for Defence and the second to the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry which latter was subsequently transferred to the Minister for Defence. I have allowed both questions and I propose now asking that the questions be read before the Minister is called upon.

asked the Minister for Defence if he will initiate an independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the serious incident involving a fishery protection vessel and a fishing boat off Burtonport yesterday and will he make a statement on the matter.

First of all, I would like to ask which question?

The Deputy can read them consecutively.

I appreciate the fact I have been given this opportunity but why was the question addressed to the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry transferred to the Minister for Defence?

The Chair, as he has said on many occasions, has no control over the transfer of questions. Neither the Chair nor the Chair's office has any control over that.

The question was addressed to the Minister for Fisheries and I think it is deplorable that the Minister of State could see fit not to come into this House regarding a matter relating to fishermen.

Will the Deputy read the questions?

asked the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry if he is aware of the fears and anxieties of fishermen in the north-west at the events surrounding yesterday's incident off Arranmore Island when shots were fired by the patrol service at the fishing vessel Gina Maria and the steps he has taken to protect the lives and livelihood of traditional salmon fishermen.

asked the Minister for Defence if he will make a statement on the incident involving the naval patrol vessel LE Fola and the MFV Gina Maria off Arranmore Island yesterday and if he will give details of the events surrounding the incident and the efforts used to apprehend the vessel, the type of ammunition used, the number of shots fired and the steps he proposes to take to avoid a repetition of this incident and to allay the fears of traditional salmon fishermen.

I propose to take the questions together. The facts regarding this incident are as follows. Yesterday afternoon LE Aisling sighted an unidentified fishing vessel hauling large quantities of net and informed LE Fola which was on patrol for salmon conservation measures and had on board a fisheries officer and a Garda sergeant. LE Fola proceeded to intercept the fishing vessel. LE Fola approached the fishing vessel from ahead and from a range of one mile down to 100 yards used the following means to signal the vessel to stop: (1) lamps and flags using the international code signals for the vessel to stop, initially stop for boarding and, when the vessel failed to do so, to stop, LE Fola would open fire; (2) a loud hailer was used when it was close to the fishing vessel. The skipper of the fishing vessel replied to the loud hailer instructions by using abusive language which indicated to the commanding officer of LE Fola that the fishing vessel had understood the signals given. Thunder flashes were dropped in the water by LE Fola and the crew of the fishing vessel were on deck brandishing flashes and knives indicating their intention of resisting boarding. At this stage LE Fola fired 14 SM tracer warning shots over and ahead of the fishing vessel. Finally, when the vessel persisted in evading boarding, five shots were fired into the vessel's bow. These shots were fired before the two Gemini boarding vessels were launched. The principal reason for opening fire into the fishing vessel bow was that the vessel was refusing to obey instructions to stop and was unidentified. The commanding officer was concerned that, if the vessel managed to reach Burtonport or Arranmore without being identified, no charges could be preferred against the vessel's skipper and the evasion by the fishing vessel would undermine the effect of the previous month's work and provoke actions by other fishing vessels on a large scale. Here I would like to point out that in the previous week about 18½ miles of illegal monofilament net was seized off the Donegal coast. This indicates the very widespread and serious nature of illegal fishing in the area.

Is the Minister aware that this statement is in total contradiction of that given by a naval spokesman yesterday evening and reported in today's media? The sequence of events is completely different according to the naval spokesman. The Gemini craft was in the water and approaching the fishing boat and it is said there was an attempted ramming whereas the Minister said that the Gemini craft was only launched after the shots were fired. Secondly, would the Minister not agree that the fact that armed personnel would fire on unarmed fishermen, whether fishing or not, is a new departure and would he approve of this type of conduct?

I am not aware of the report to which the Deputy referred in the first part of his supplementary. The facts as I have given them to the House are the facts reported to me and I am satisfied they are accurate. With regard to the question of firing there are two questions there as to whether vessels could and should be fired on. Under the law as it stands there is no doubt that the commander of the Fola was quite within his rights in ordering fire to be opened on the offending fishing vessel. I would also say quite categorically that in the circumstances of the case — this vessel was unidentified — and having regard to the outrageous amount of illegal fishing in the area the commanding officer was justified in taking that action.

Can the Minister say if the Fola contacted the Gina Maria by radio, a practice which we in Donegal would consider to be normal? Is the Minister aware that skippers of small boats of this size would not be au fait with international standards?

I do not accept that vessels of that size would be unaware of a common international signal. I would imagine that before a person would be qualified to take a boat out to sea the least knowledge he should have would be a knowledge of the recognised and common international signals. These signals were given both by flag and by lamp. The Deputy has forgotten another aspect that I dealt with in my reply, that is, that when the vessels were close enough the skipper of the Fola used a loudhailer to give the command verbally to the vessel to stop.

Does the Minister condone the fact that the detection vessel fired at a small 50-foot boat and does this not contradict what has been said by the Navy spokesman this morning — that they fired only after the dinghy was in the water?

I am not aware of this alleged report from a naval officer. The facts as I have outlined them to the House were as conveyed to me by the Naval Service. It is not a question of my condoning anything but of whether the commanding officer of the Fola acted within the law and properly. I am satisfied that he so acted.

Again, I must point out that the vessel in question was unidentified and, in breach of law, did not display its name or number. It was asked verbally to hove to but failed to do so. If it had nothing to fear and had been carrying out legal fishing one would have expected a law-abiding skipper to stop immediately when requested to do so by a vessel of the national Naval Service.

Is this incident unprecedented in the history of this State? A total of 19 rounds of 7.62 mm FN rifle tracer shots were fired during the confrontation. Has this number of shots ever been fired at any foreign vessel, and why when those fishery protection vessels were there did they not go to investigate the fact that there were a number of foreign boats fishing in the vicinity and fishing, no doubt, not for blue whiting but for mackerel or herring?

The Deputy can be assured that if there were foreign boats in the area the Naval Service would have done their duty. On the question of whether the action was unprecedented, I regret that it was not, that there were incidents in the past of this kind. For instance, in 1981 there was a similar incident in the same place when three trawlers with large quantities of monofilament net on board refused to hove to when so requested. Shots were fired at the trawlers and one of them at full speed rammed the LE Gráinne. On 9 June 1981, seven warning shots were fired into the stern of a half-decker which tried to ram a protection vessel off Baltimore. In May 1979 a warning round was fired by the Gráinne when there was resistance during the transfer of fishing nets from fishing vessels in County Kerry. However, I should hope that this will be the last occasion on which such action is found to be necessary and I would ask all Deputies from the constituency in question to use their good offices in persuading the fishermen to obey the law.

Would the Minister accept that if the commanding officer of the Fola considered it necessary to fire shots, he was ill-advised in instructing that they be fired through the bows where there were bunks and where it was likely that there would be fishermen at any time? It is reported in today's papers that the ammunition went through the bows. Would it not have been sufficient to have fired through the rigging or over the boat rather than into it?

The Deputy may not have heard me say that the initial shots were fired above and ahead of the boat but were disregarded. Shots were then fired into the bow of the vessel. Obviously, the shots would be fired in such a way as to avoid the wounding of persons and happily no one was wounded on this occasion. It is a serious matter that shots have to be fired but the blame for this should not be laid at the feet of the commanding officer of the Fola but at the feet of the fishermen who are breaking the law flagrantly in that area.

I will allow a final supplementary on this question.

Was it not highly irresponsible for the protection vessel to have fired a shot through the vessel and through a bunk on which a fisherman could have been sleeping? Can the Minister condone that sort of situation? In view of the fact that there is disagreement about the details of the incident, would the Minister undertake to have carried out urgently an inquiry into the matter? The wives and children of all the fishermen in Donegal are living in fear that this may happen again.

This is argument.

I am disappointed that the Minister's colleague did not come in here to take this question but I would ask the Minister to use his good offices with that other Minister to have him agree either here or in Donegal, to meet representatives of the families from the area.

The fishermen in Donegal and their wives and children and also the fishermen in any other part of the country need have no fear from the Naval Service of this State. Any unfortunate consequences that result from encounters between the Naval Service and the fishermen are attributable directly to the flagrant breaching of the law by the fishermen in question. There is widespread illegal fishing taking place in that area and the national salmon stocks would be wiped out of existence within a very short time unless action were taken to deal with the situation. In one week the Naval Service seized 18½ miles of monofilament net, every inch of which is illegal. I would suggest that, instead of trying to blacken the Naval Service and blame them for doing what was only their duty on behalf of all of us, the Deputies here and anybody else who may have influence with the fishermen ask them simply to keep within the law.


Hear, hear.

We must pass from this question but I will allow a final supplementary from Deputy McGinley.

As there is still a certain amount of confusion clouding this issue. I appeal to the Minister to set up an inquiry to investigate all the circumstances surrounding the incident and to report at the appropriate time to the House.

On a point of order, can the Minister name the section under which the Fola acted in this instance?

That is not a point of order.

Can he name also the international convention to which he referred?

I am taking that as a supplementary question and not as a point of order.

I did not refer to an international convention. The authority for the Fola to act would be contained in section 233 of the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act, 1959.

In view of the ambiguity surrounding the case would the Minister be prepared to do as I suggested in my original question — to set up an inquiry into the circumstances of the case in order to obtain some of the facts from the people concerned instead merely of taking them from the Naval Service.

We have a limited debate on another subject. In fairness, we should move on to that subject.

I omitted to reply to Deputy McGinley, whose supplementary was on the same lines as that from Deputy Gallagher. I do not propose to have an inquiry into this matter. The Defence Forces have their normal procedures for a full reporting system and inquiries that must be made by them will be made in the normal way. I do not propose to hold any sort of public inquiry or to arrange a type of Star Chamber whereby all sorts of allegations would be made against the Naval Service.

What is the Minister afraid of?

The Chair has been more than fair in regard to supplementaries on this subject.

What has the Minister to hide? Is he not prepared to take action to allay the fears of the fishermen?

I am not allowing further supplementaries from either side. We are moving on to the next item.

The facts in this case are as clear as daylight.