I remind the House that the Supreme Court upheld the High Court finding that the voisinage arrangements are valid but that, as it stands, there is insufficient provision for them in domestic law. The Bill seeks to address what the Supreme Court identified as required, that is, to give the arrangements a legal footing and to cement our ongoing relationship with Northern Ireland. The voisinage or neighbourhood agreement between Ireland and Northern Ireland has provided reciprocal fishing access 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 Government approved the preparation of a legislative amendment, namely, 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 that have long being in existence to provide access for fishing.
The amendments I am introducing today will clarify some matters which were raised as concerns in previous debates. I welcome the support of the House in making progress with the Bill today.
Two weeks ago, I undertook to host a consultation session with fishing industry representatives. This session took place at the National Seafood Centre in Clonakilty last Thursday. Our discussions were detailed and considered. I agreed to provide further clarity in my statements here today and on the principles and policies behind the amendments. 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. I hope the House will indulge me in this regard.
The 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 voisinage arrangements. 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 area between zero and six nautical miles as measured from the baseline of the State’s exclusive fishery limits. Although 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. This is consistent with the concept of reciprocity which is fundamental to the arrangements. My amendments Nos. 1, 3 and 7 to 9, inclusive, aim 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 nautical mile zone. Amendment No. 7 is the main element of this as it proposes to insert new subsections (2) and (3) which provide the policies and principles necessary for applying equivalent conditions. Amendments Nos. 1, 3, 8 and 9 address drafting issues arising from the insertion of amendment No. 7.
In December 2018, I announced the introduction of restrictions on vessels over 18 m trawling inside six nautical miles to come into effect from 1 January 2020. Northern Irish vessels will be subject to these restrictions. This is in keeping with the basis on which the voisinage arrangements were formalised in the 1960s, continuing access subject to the usual regulations which apply to our own vessels. This is consistent with the Supreme Court judgment which has brought us all here.
Although there has been much scaremongering, the access arrangements for Northern Ireland boats will not change from what they were before. 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 continue to be subject to the same measures that apply to Irish-registered fishing boats. The Bill is expressly to provide access for the purpose of the act of fishing.
While Northern Irish boats are being granted access to fish, I have been asked to clarify the issue of quota. Any Northern Irish boats wishing to avail of the voisinage arrangements to fish for quota species in the zero to six nautical mile area will need to have the necessary authorisation from their own fisheries administration to avail of the UK quota for the species in question. That has always been the case and will continue to be so. There is no question of vessels of other countries gaining access to the Irish zero to six nautical mile zone as a result of the Bill, a point which I was happy to clarify for the representatives from the fishing industry at our consultation session last week. The Bill clearly stipulates the boats which may avail of the access and the principle behind the proposed legislation is on public record. In layman's language, boats of any other nationality which are not specifically allowed into the relevant waters under the legislation will be subject to the full rigours of the law.
Two weeks ago, I stated in the House that our neighbours have exercised good grace while we have debated in this House whether or not to share with them that which we had been sharing with them for decades. We are here 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 for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. 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. The letter, dated 5 July 2017, states:
I am writing to inform you that as part of the wider process of becoming an independent Coastal State, we will be withdrawing from the London Fisheries Convention 1964. We have today given the required two years notice, in accordance with Article 15 of the Convention.
This is a preliminary procedural step so that the UK is able to manage and control UK waters, in accordance with our international rights and obligations, when we leave the EU and that we have a clear starting point for negotiations on future fisheries agreements. The UK remains fully committed to acting as a responsible Coastal State. We are keen to work with you to agree a future fisheries deal that is both fair and guarantees the sustainable management of fish stocks.
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.
My officials will be in contact with yours shortly to answer any questions you may have.
Michael Gove MP
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
On 6 June 2018 I received a letter from the then UK Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr. George Eustice, reaffirming the UK Government commitment to protecting and supporting continued co-operation between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The concern was expressed that the UK could not accept unequal application of the arrangements indefinitely. The letter stated:
I am writing to you to express my continuing concern about the Voisinage Agreement between the UK and Ireland, which allows for reciprocal access to the 0 to 6 nm zones for Ireland and Northern Ireland vessels.
As you are aware the agreement, which has been in place since 1965 and affects capture fisheries and the mussel sector on both the Irish and Northern Irish sides, has been suspended, in Ireland, following a decision by the Irish Supreme Court in 2016. As a result, fishing by Northern Ireland vessels within Ireland's 0 to 6 nm zone is not permitted. 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.
I would welcome an update on the 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.
I look forward to working with you constructively on this matter.
George Eustice MP
In December 2018, the UK Government again reiterated its commitment in response to the fourth report of the Northern Ireland affairs committee, stating:
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 Government has raised this with Minister Creed, Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and will keep the situation under review.
In the meantime, we will continue to explore possible solutions to make sure that the arrangement can be reinstated as quickly as possible and that it can benefit fishers from both Northern Ireland and Ireland.
On March 18, I met the current UK Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr. Robert Goodwill, while we were in Brussels. He reiterated the UK Government's commitment to the arrangements. In view of the findings of the Irish Supreme Court, I asked Minister Goodwill if the arrangement is legally sound on the UK 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 amendment and to demonstrate that we are and will continue to be good neighbours with Northern Ireland.