Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon. [23295/19]

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Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Scottish First Minister, Ms Nicola Sturgeon. [24100/19]

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Micheál Martin


3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken recently to the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon. [25194/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon. [25590/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

I met First Minister Sturgeon over a working lunch in Farmleigh on Monday, 27 May when we considered how best to maintain and further develop the strong bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland. We also discussed the latest political developments in the wake of the recent European Parliament and local elections, as well as the latest Brexit developments. We acknowledged the strength and importance of bilateral relations and had a productive discussion on how we might further develop these links. We also discussed issues on which there is scope for greater co-operation. Rockall was not raised at our meeting. However, I can confirm there is an intensified dialogue at official level which I believe should allow a de-escalation of tension on this matter.

First Minister Sturgeon and I look forward to working closely together in the coming months. We are both committed to the work of the British-Irish Council, a key institution of the Good Friday Agreement, and looked forward to meeting again at the next summit of the council, which is due to take place in Manchester at the end of June.

Deputy Martin Kenny is first up. He will note that I actually do call Sinn Féin Deputies.

We will not get into that at the moment. I understand that the situation is that this issue was not raised with First Minister Sturgeon at the recent meeting and at the time the Taoiseach said that it was decided not to escalate the matter. In addition to that, in response to a parliamentary question last week, the Tánaiste said that the issue of Rockall was directly raised with him as late as 2018 and that it had been flagged with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine since April 2017, which is quite a while ago for this issue to have been raised. It seems like an issue that should have been building over a period of time and one would expect that the importance of the Rockall issue for Irish fishing communities in particular would be very much to the fore of that agenda.

It was surely a mistake that it was not raised with First Minister Sturgeon. Has the Taoiseach spoken with First Minister Sturgeon about the matter subsequently in the past fortnight? If not, will he do so in the coming days? It is very important and it strikes me that as an important first step to try to rectify this matter the interests of Irish fishermen and their families have to be put front and centre. Irish fishing vessels have used the waters around Rockall for decades, probably even for centuries at this stage, and it is a vital fishing ground, particularly for fishermen off the north-west coast. It is clearly a situation where we possibly have issues of internal politics in Scotland taking precedence over issues that are vitally important to Irish fishing families.

It was surprising that the issue of Rockall was not raised during the recent meeting between the Taoiseach and the First Minister of Scotland. Was the Taoiseach briefed on this issue in advance? Was he aware of the Scottish position on Rockall and their efforts to raise it with the Government in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum? We know that there were extensive discussions on fishing rights between Scotland and Ireland. Why were Irish fishing representatives not aware of these ongoing exchanges? I attend the very useful Brexit stakeholder fora which are held frequently. The representative of the Irish fishing industry attends those fora and it has never been an issue that was raised. It came out of the blue.

The First Minister of Scotland has said that: "Ireland is Scotland's closest international trading partner," and stressed that "we must strengthen, not strain these bonds." If the hard line set out by a variety of Scottish Government spokespeople is persisted with, what does the Taoiseach intend to do to protect Irish fishermen who have fished in the waters surrounding Rockall for decades?

It is important that the Taoiseach would indicate whether he was alerted about Rockall in advance of the meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Was it in any note that he had received from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine? Did the Taoiseach have any indication that there had been ongoing discussions between the Scottish side and the Irish side on fishing rights at Rockall? There seems to have been considerable engagement prior to this, which both Governments would have been aware of, and yet it did not seem to form the subject matter of discussions between the Taoiseach and the First Minister of Scotland.

These latest exchanges about Rockall are another demonstration of how Brexit will have many direct impacts, none of which will be positive. The fact that this dispute is happening at all reflects badly on both countries, given that we are committed to the rule of law and it is shocking that it is going on in this way. Clearly, both Governments should agree some form of reciprocal access rights so that Irish fishermen will not be unilaterally threatened or excluded from fishing their traditional waters. The Common Fisheries Policy covers it at the moment and is our main negotiating plank. Will the Taoiseach indicate what advice has been given to Irish fishermen, some of whom are concerned that they may be boarded if they fish within the alleged 12-mile Scottish zone?

I am not aware of whether the Taoiseach is aware of the advice by Charles Lysaght, who was once a legal adviser in Iveagh House and later a Sunday Independent columnist and who wrote last week about Ireland's case on Rockall. He made the point that in 2014, Ireland entered an agreement on maritime boundaries which gave the UK economic rights in the Rockall zone. The Taoiseach might clarify that and he might take the opportunity if he cannot do it this evening to give us a considered position from Government, written if he likes, on that 2014 agreement, what it entails and an interpretation of it. It would be interesting to see if Charles Lysaght's analysis is the correct one on the Rockall issue. Someone in the Government has probably checked it out already and a clear statement in response to it would be important. I am anxious about the advice that has been given to Irish fishermen by the Government and about where we are in the resolution of this issue.

Ireland's position is that there is no basis for excluding Irish fishing vessels from the Rockall waters. They are EU waters and therefore, Irish fishermen are legitimately pursuing EU fishing opportunities and have done so unhindered for decades. Any concern should be handled through dialogue rather than universal enforcement action.

The House will be aware that the Tánaiste recently received a formal letter of notice from the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop MSP, stating that Scotland would deploy vessels in the Rockall area to take enforcement action against Irish and other EU vessels found within 12 miles of Rockall from last weekend onwards. The jurisdiction over the 12-mile area around Rockall has long been disputed. The UK claims sovereignty over Rockall and thus a 12-mile territorial limit in the sea around it. The Irish Government's position has been, and continues to be, that we do not recognise this claim, that the waters around Rockall are part of the UK’s exclusive economic zone and accordingly form part of the European waters under the Common Fisheries Policy, to which the principle of equal access for the vessels of all EU member states applies.

Irish vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades, fishing haddock, squid and other species. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, met with the Irish fishing sector on Friday, 2 June, to inform it of the letter from the Scottish authorities, but also confirmed that Ireland's position on Rockall had not changed. I know that the industry was appreciative of that engagement but was also extremely concerned with the possibility that unjustified enforcement action might be taken against its members.

In engagement with the Scottish authorities, Ireland's position has been that there is no basis for excluding Irish fishing vessels from Rockall waters, that they are legitimately pursuing EU fishing opportunities and quotas in these waters and that they have done so unhindered for many decades. That is our advice to the sector.

On this issue, the views of Ireland and those of Scotland have differed for some time. Nevertheless, we have had a strong and positive partnership to our mutual benefit over many years. In light of the most recent developments, dialogue is continuing between the Irish and Scottish Governments and there has been close contact at official level in recent days in order to de-escalate tensions. It has been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will take place, led by senior officials from both administrations.

I was not briefed about this issue in advance of my last meeting with First Minister Sturgeon and did not receive any note on it. I understand that the Scottish Government had indicated that it would give us advance notice before taking any action. I will be meeting First Minister Sturgeon in Manchester later this month and that will be an opportunity for us to talk about the matter. In the meantime, we have been in touch through our senior officials and have agreed a common line on it, which I have shared with the House.

As the House will know, Rockall is a small and uninhabitable rock located approximately 150 nautical miles west of the Scottish island of St. Kilda and 230 nautical miles north-west of Donegal. During the 1960s and 1970s, the issue of Rockall was a source of legal and political controversy in both Ireland and the UK. The UK claimed sovereignty over Rockall and has sought formally to annex it under its Island of Rockall Act 1972.

In April 2017, Marine Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, advised our Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, that it intended to exclude Irish fishing vessels from waters within the 12-mile zone around Rockall. The proposed Scottish action was based on the UK Government's stance on sovereignty over Rockall and their interpretation of their prerogatives under the UK fisheries legislation and the UK's Island of Rockall Act 1972 combined with the absence of an explicit provision in annex 1 of the Common Fisheries Policy regulation permitting Irish vessels to access territorial waters around Rockall.

Ireland disputes the Scottish interpretation of the legal position. We do not recognise the UK's claim of sovereignty over Rockall and, therefore, we do not accept the existence of a 12-mile territory limit around it. From Ireland's perspective, the area forms part of a wider, 200-mile UK exclusive economic zone, EEZ, in which the principle of equal access for all EU vessels should apply. While Ireland has not recognised British sovereignty over Rockall, it has never sought to claim sovereignty for itself. The consistent position of successive Governments has been that Rockall and similar rocks have no significance for establishing legal claims to mineral rights in the adjacent seabed or fishing rights in the surrounding seas. In 1998, Ireland and the UK concluded an agreement, establishing the boundaries on the continental shelf, which gave no weight to Rockall, in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In 2013, it was agreed the same boundary would also serve to divide the two countries' EEZs. Ireland fully accepts that Rockall lies within the UK EEZ.

Since the matter was raised with the Government in April 2017, discussions have been ongoing. At political level, it was discussed between the Tánaiste and the Scottish cabinet secretary, Ms Fiona Hyslop, in September, which was followed by an exchange of letters. Further discussions have taken place at senior official level this year. On 31 May, Ms Hyslop wrote to the Tánaiste to indicate that subject to operational priorities, the Scottish Government intended to deploy vessels in the area one week after that date and intended to take enforcement actions against any vessel, regardless of nationality, it considered to be fishing illegally. On 5 June, the Tánaiste replied, stating the position of the Government and requesting that the Scottish Government reconsider its approach. The Tánaiste spoke with Ms Hyslop on 6 June and she has maintained the Scottish position. Dialogue has continued, however, between the Irish and Scottish Governments. There have been contacts at official level in recent days and it has been agreed a process of intensified engagement, led by officials from both Administrations, will take place, which, we hope, will allow a de-escalation of tensions in this regard.