I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The voisinage or neighbourhood arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland have provided reciprocal fishing access for more than 50 years. They have allowed boats from Northern Ireland to fish in Irish coastal waters. They have also allowed and continue to allow Irish-registered fishing boats access to fish in coastal waters off Northern Ireland. The Bill seeks to address a requirement identified by the Supreme Court, that is, giving the arrangements a legal footing to cement our ongoing relationship with Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court upheld the finding by the High Court that the voisinage arrangements were not invalid but that there was insufficient provision for them in domestic law.
Section 1 of the Bill proposes to provide a legal provision to allow Northern Ireland boats to resume reciprocal fishing access under the voisinage arrangements by amending section 10 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006.
The proposed new section 10(1) asserts Ireland's exclusive right to fish within the exclusive fishery limits of the State by maintaining previous provisions excluding foreign sea-fishing boats from Ireland's exclusive fishery limits unless authorised by law to fish there. Subsection (4) provides that anyone who contravenes subsection (1) commits an offence. Subsection (2) explicitly provides for access to fish by sea-fishing vessels owned and operated in Northern Ireland within the area between zero to six nautical miles as measured from the baseline of the State's exclusive fishery limits. It further describes that this access is subject to the same conditions that apply to Irish sea-fishing vessels. This is consistent with the concept of reciprocity, which is fundamental to the arrangements. Subsection (3) specifies 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 nautical mile zone. The policies and principles necessary for applying equivalent conditions are listed in paragraphs (a) to (e), with a further regulatory making provision in paragraph (f).
Section 2 of the Bill provides for a Short Title to the legislation, a collective citation and that the Bill, if enacted, will come into effect by means of a commencement order. Much has been said in previous debates on this Bill about engagement with the fishing industry. I regularly meet representatives of the fishing industry, including the producer organisations and the National Inshore Fisheries Forum, which is constituted of representatives of all the regional fisheries forums. Both of these groups were briefed on the Bill as part of regular meetings and attended at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in June 2017 to give their views on the Bill. It is safe to say that they have made their views known.
On Thursday last, I hosted a further consultation session with the fishing industry representatives at the National Seafood Centre in Clonakilty and our discussions were detailed and considered. The Bill I present to the House today, as passed by the Seanad, reflects amendments adopted which address the main concerns expressed by fishing industry representatives on seeking equal application of rules and regulations. I also undertook to put on record the assurances received to date from the UK Government on its commitment to the voisinage arrangements for our boats and boats from Northern Ireland.
While there has been much scaremongering, the access arrangements for Northern Ireland vessels will not change from what they were before. Northern Ireland vessels will simply regain the fishing access they have had for decades under the voisinage arrangements in the zero to six nautical mile zone of the territorial waters of the State, subject to the same measures that apply to Irish-registered fishing boats. While Northern Irish fishing boats are being granted access to fish, I have been asked to clarify the issue of the impact on Irish fishermen’s quotas under the EU's Common Fisheries Policy. Northern Irish boats wishing to avail of the voisinage arrangements to fish for quota species under the Common Fisheries Policy in the zero to six mile area will need to have the necessary authorisation from their own fisheries administration to avail of UK quota for the species in question. This has always been the case and will continue to be the case. There is no question of other countries' vessels gaining access to the Irish zero to six nautical mile zone as a result of this Bill. The Bill clearly stipulates the boats that may avail of the access. What we are doing via this Bill is to reinstate arrangements which had been in operation up to the point of the Supreme Court judgment and which have been suspended on our side only pending passage of this legislation. This Bill seeks to re-establish the reciprocity on our side of these arrangements.
I acknowledge and understand concerns that have arisen on the issue of long-term reciprocity, particularly given the sensitivities around access to fishing generally in UK waters with Brexit looming. For its part, the UK Government has set out a consistent position on the matter of the voisinage arrangements for Northern Ireland. On 5 July 2017, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, wrote to me on the matter of the withdrawal from the London Fisheries Convention and expressly stated that the UK Government remains committed to the principles behind the voisinage agreement between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I will quote the pertinent elements of the letter for the benefit of the House:
As the Prime Minister has said, we are committed to protecting our strong, historic ties with Ireland and to finding a solution that works for Ireland and Northern Ireland. We also remain committed to the principles behind the voisinage agreement between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I know that you have discussed this issue with George Eustice. Please be assured that we are keen to work with you to find a firm legal footing for this agreement as soon as possible.
On 6 June 2018, I received a letter from the Minister, Mr. George Eustice, reaffirming the UK Government commitment and to protecting and supporting continued co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Again, I will quote the pertinent elements of the letter for the benefit of the House:
The UK has not to date suspended the operation of the Agreement but we are increasingly concerned about the asymmetric application of the agreement and the lack of progress to rectify the situation. I would like to reassure you that the UK Government remains committed to the principles behind the Voisinage Agreement and to protecting and supporting continued cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have continued to honour the agreement, however, we will not be able to accept this unequal application indefinitely.
He went on to state:
I would welcome an update on progress of the Bill and steps which you are taking to put the agreement on a firm legal footing. We are keen to explore possible solutions to make sure that the Agreement can be reinstated as quickly as possible and that it can benefit both Irish and Northern Irish fishers.
In December 2018, the UK Government again reiterated its commitment in response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee fourth report as follows:
The UK Government remains committed to the principles behind the Voisinage Arrangement and to protecting and supporting continued cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have continued to honour the agreement. However, we will not be able to accept this unequal application indefinitely.
The week before last, on March 18, I met with the Minister, Mr. Goodwill, while we were both in Brussels and he again reiterated the UK Government commitment to the arrangements. In view of the finding of our Supreme Court, I took the opportunity to ask the Minister, Mr. Goodwill, if the arrangement is legally sound on their side and he expressed confidence that it is. It is important to be aware that the UK has demonstrated its commitment to the arrangements in continuing to allow Irish sea-fishing boats to benefit from access to the Northern Ireland zero to six nautical mile zone in circumstances of unequal application. It is time that we act to restore our side of this reciprocal arrangement. I ask the House to accept this Bill and to demonstrate that we are, and we will continue to be, good neighbours with Northern Ireland.