Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Questions (34)

Pat the Cope Gallagher


34. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the implications of the agreement reached between Ireland and the United Kingdom in 2013 regarding the setting of the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone; if the agreement of 2013 has possible implications for the present difficulties between Ireland and Scotland over fishing rights around Rockall either in the present context or future post-Brexit scenario; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25532/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Foreign)

I pose this question to the Minister to clear up any ambiguity. This has arisen since the Government of Scotland communicated with the Government here about Rockall. There were views about the agreement of 2013 on the exclusive economic zone. I want to give the Minister an opportunity to clarify the position and I look forward to his reply.

I thank the Deputy for raising this question because it is important to clarify it. It has been a high-profile issue in the media in the last couple of weeks. I have been very direct in my response to it, as has the Minister, Deputy Michael Creed. I know that Deputy Gallagher has raised concerns about it and that he understands the fishing industry's concerns well.

The exclusive economic zone, EEZ, is the body of water that stretches from 12 nautical miles offshore out to a distance of 200 miles. The seabed beneath the EEZ is the continental shelf. Largely due to efforts made by Ireland through the 1970s, international law is now clear that uninhabitable rocks such as Rockall have no entitlement to a continental shelf or an EEZ and so sovereignty over such a rock is irrelevant for the purposes of establishing boundaries between continental shelves and EEZs of neighbouring states. Sovereignty, and whether such a rock has a 12-mile territorial sea, are separate issues that do not arise in establishing boundaries between continental shelves and EEZs.

The issue of Rockall therefore did not arise in the 2013 agreement as it was not relevant. The 2013 agreement built on a 1988 agreement between Ireland and the UK that had already established continental shelf boundaries and provides that those boundaries, slightly adjusted to ensure that no waters were lost to the high seas, shall also be the EEZ boundaries. This created a single maritime boundary between 12 and 200 miles in the water and on the seabed beneath.

As the Deputy is aware, Ireland has never made any claims to Rockall nor have we recognised British claim to sovereignty over it. Nothing in either agreement altered that position or represented a departure from our long-held view, nor does either agreement have any implication for the present difficulties between Ireland and Scotland over fishing rights around Rockall.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Regarding the situation following Brexit, the Irish and EU position is, as set out in the March 2018 European Council guidelines for negotiations on the future relationship, that existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained. The 2013 agreement between Ireland and the UK is not relevant for access by EU vessels to UK waters in that context.

The main purpose of the 2013 agreement was to resolve jurisdictional uncertainty. It addressed the situation of fishing vessels seeking to avoid inspection in Irish EEZ areas that overlapped with the UK-claimed areas. Importantly, however, it also provides the legal certainty necessary for raising finance to develop renewable energy projects in the areas concerned and it resolved confusion over responsibility for dealing with marine pollution incidents in those areas.

It is important that the Tánaiste had an opportunity to clarify this for all of us because whether intentionally or otherwise, the impression was given that in 2013, without us knowing, we had forfeited our claim, which we obviously have not. What is the Minister's view of the statement and letters to the Irish authorities stating that Scotland had exclusive rights around Rockall to a 12-mile limit, which we have of course never recognised? I support the Government in its view that our boats should continue to fish there. We have had a right there for decades. It intrigues me that a meeting took place at the highest level between the Taoiseach and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It was not even on the agenda despite the fact that letters had been exchanged and meetings had taken place over the two-year period. Where does that stand?

I will make sure that the Deputy gets the technical answer in writing. This issue was first raised with Ireland by Scotland in 2017.

It was raised with me by my counterpart in the Scottish Government, Fiona Hyslop, last September when she indicated that the Scottish Government had made a decision that it would be enforcing the rules as it understood them in the 12-mile limit around Rockall, which it regarded as an exclusive fishing zone for British and Scottish boats. I made it very clear to her that I disagreed with that interpretation and that the waters around Rockall were waters that were subject to the Common Fisheries Policy, and that quotas had been allocated, in this case for haddock, for Irish boats and also for British boats.

I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The time is up.

It was in the weeks subsequent to the Nicola Sturgeon meeting with the Taoiseach that we got a letter from Fiona Hyslop confirming that they were going to proceed with enforcement within a week, and that is what triggered the quite high-profile disagreement on this issue which I am glad to say is now being dealt with through diplomacy rather than anything else.

I appreciate the importance of diplomacy but I still believe that either the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine should be in consultation with their counterparts in order to provide clarification. The language that was being used on the Friday and Saturday of two weeks ago was quite serious and amounted to unilateral illegal action at the time. Thankfully, it has toned down now and I hope it can be resolved. Has the European Union been informed by us of this situation and is it taking an interest in this case given that European quotas are being fished?

Where stands this after Brexit? If there is a deal, I hope something can be resolved but if there is no deal could we be excluded from those waters?

The European Commission is aware of the issue. The most important thing is that we have worked to de-escalate tension on this issue. This should not be dealt with through threats of enforcement. It should be dealt with through two friendly neighbours talking to each other. We have a different interpretation of the law on this issue and the fishing entitlements that go with that around Rockall. The Secretary General of my Department met his counterpart in Dublin in recent days and they will meet again in Scotland in the coming weeks to try to find a way forward that does not involve the kind of language that we heard in the past two weeks.