I am pleased to present the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017 to the House. On 27 October 2016, the Supreme Court issued a judgment in a case taken by a number of mussel seed fishermen in which it determined that fishing by Northern Irish vessels within the 0-6 nautical mile zone of the territorial waters of this State was not permitted by law. It is important to note that the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's finding that the voisinage arrangements were not invalid, but that there was insufficient provision in domestic law for them. The Government has authorised me to present this Bill to Seanad Éireann in order to address the Supreme Court's findings and restore the arrangements, which have long been in existence, to provide access for fishing.
Ireland and Northern Ireland have had reciprocal fishing access arrangements for more than 50 years. These arrangements have allowed boats from Northern Ireland to fish in coastal waters in Ireland. They have also allowed, and continue to allow, Irish-registered fishing boats access to fish in coastal waters in Northern Ireland. The 1964 London Fisheries Convention allowed that each coastal state could assert exclusive fishing rights within 6 nautical miles of its baselines under Article 2. It also provided for contracting parties to allow those fishermen from another coastal state who had habitually fished within the belt to continue to do so by reason of voisinage arrangements under Article 9. On this basis, pre-existing reciprocal arrangements were re-affirmed at the time by means of an exchange of letters in the 1960s between the UK and Ireland that allowed for vessels from Northern Ireland to fish within Ireland's 6 nautical mile zone and vice versa.
In light of the Supreme Court's judgment, fishing by Northern Irish vessels in Irish territorial waters is not currently provided for in domestic law. The application of the judgment is to all fishing by Northern Irish fishing vessels in the 0-6 nautical mile zone relying on the voisinage arrangements. The arrangements, as noted by the courts, apply to all species of fish and are subject to such conditions as may apply at the time of fishing.
Following receipt of advice from the Attorney General's office on the application of the judgment, I notified the matter to the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Ms Michelle McIlveen, MLA. I have been keeping her apprised of developments as appropriate. My Department is remaining in close contact with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland on the issue and a number of meetings have been held to reaffirm the mutual understanding of the voisinage arrangements.
The court’s ruling has complicated an important area of North-South co-operation. The access of Northern Ireland sea-fishing boats to coastal waters of the State, and vice versa, under the voisinage arrangements has been one aspect of ongoing co-operation between the two jurisdictions in the area of fisheries. This co-operation has supported broader efforts to promote greater North-South co-operation under the 1998 British-Irish Agreement. The North-South Ministerial Council was set up under the Agreement specifically to develop better consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland. The North-South Ministerial Council focuses on areas of co-operation of interest to both jurisdictions, including aquaculture and marine issues. I have had regular and positive engagement within the framework of the North-South Ministerial Council with my Northern Ireland equivalent, Michelle Mcllveen. This kind of North-South co-operation across a range of policy areas is in the interests of the people of this island. The Supreme Court noted in its judgment that the voisinage arrangements are a sensible recognition at official level of practice and tradition, where fishing boats traditionally fished neighbouring waters. I remain committed to continuing this co-operation on agriculture and sea-fisheries issues with our counterparts in Northern Ireland.
The Government has approved the preparation of a legislative amendment, namely, this Bill, to address the issues raised by the Supreme Court judgment as expediently as possible. It is important to note that the Supreme Court upheld the High Court finding that the voisinage arrangements are not invalid but that, as it stands, there is insufficient provision for them in domestic law. The Bill sets out a proposed legislative amendment to address the immediate issue of providing sufficient legal provision for Northern Ireland boats to resume reciprocal fishing access under the voisinage arrangements. 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 zero to six nautical miles of the baseline of the State’s exclusive fishery limits. The Bill also contains a commencement provision which provides for an order to be made to commence the Bill if enacted. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority was set up by the Oireachtas under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 as the independent authority for, inter alia, the implementation of sea-fisheries legislation. I do not have a role in regard to the performance of its functions. The authority will be responsible for the application of the Bill if enacted and commenced.
While the Bill proposes to restore access to Northern Ireland boats to fish, under the terms of the voisinage arrangements, this access is subject to the same conditions that apply to Irish sea-fishing boats. The Bill itself does not apply the specific conditions. Therefore, other parallel associated measures will be required to ensure that conditions in place for Irish sea-fishing boats are appropriately applied to Northern Ireland boats fishing under the voisinage arrangements. The process of identifying which conditions may need to be legislated for is under way. The conditions will include such restrictions as currently apply to Irish sea-fishing boats. When the necessary measures have been identified, the most appropriate mechanisms for applying them to Northern Ireland boats will be determined. The objective will be for these measures to come into effect at the same time as commencement order for the Bill. Together, the Bill and the associated measures will re-establish the status quo for fishing access that existed under the voisinage arrangements before the Supreme Court's judgment on 27 October. The only difference will be that the voisinage arrangements will be provided for within a legislative framework. The access arrangements for Northern Ireland boats will not change as a result of this Bill. Northern Ireland boats will simply regain 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. They will also continue to be subject to the same measures that apply to Irish-registered fishing boats.
Article 5(2) of the Common Fisheries Policy Regulation No. 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council specifically authorises member states to restrict access for fishing with certain limitations. One such limitation is where there are existing neighbourhood arrangements between member states, such as the voisinage arrangements. Another limitation is the access arrangements for member states, based on traditional fishing, set out in the annex to the regulation. In keeping with this Article, the Bill will continue to exclude the sea-fishing boats of other member states from fishing within Ireland’s zero to six nautical mile zone. Fishing activities which have a legal basis, reliant on access arrangements to Ireland’s six to 12 nautical mile zone in the EU Regulation 1380/2013, will not be affected by this Bill.
The specific access arrangements in regard to each member state are set out in annex 1 of the regulation. These arrangements are based on traditional fishing patterns by the various member states’ sea-fishing boats. Under the EU regulation, sea-fishing boats registered in the UK are allowed access to fish in the coastal waters of Ireland as follows: in the six to 12 nautical mile zone, from Mine Head to Hook Point, they can fish for demersal species, herring and mackerel; and in the six to 12 nautical mile zone, from Hook Point to Carlingford Lough, they can fish for demersal species, herring and mackerel, as well as nephrops and scallops. The EU regulation also gives Irish-registered fishing boats access to areas of the UK’s six to 12 nautical mile zone to fish for demersal stocks and nephrops.
The House will be mindful of the proposed departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, or Brexit. It has been suggested that continuing the long-standing voisinage arrangements through this Bill may weaken Ireland’s position in any future negotiations arising from Brexit. I cannot accept this point. The UK has not yet invoked Article 50. Until the UK invokes Article 50, it remains a member state of the European Union. We can only operate on that basis for the moment and honour the commitments we have made to our neighbours through the voisinage arrangements. Ireland, as a member state, will continue to come under the Common Fisheries Policy, and I am already engaged in an active way with the European Commission and other member sates to highlight Ireland’s particular access arrangements and interests as part of the European Union’s negotiations. Should the necessity arise, it will be for the Government of the day to address issues arising from that process and to assess the application of the voisinage arrangements in light of developments at that time. In the current situation, however, we must amend our legislation so that Ireland meets its obligations under the Common Fisheries Policy and so that we continue to co-operate with our neighbours on this island. I commend the Bill to the House.