This Bill is designed to regularise the position in regard to ownership and registry of Irish ships and will also deal with the duties and functions of registrars of shipping, transfer and transmission of ownership, mortgage of ships, national character and flag and survey and tonnage measurement.
It has long been apparent that the law relating to merchant shipping in this country, which consists mainly of adapted British statutes, requires amendment and codification. The law is contained in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and some 20 other enactments amending and extending that Act which, although technically continued in force under Article 73 of the Constitution of 1922, are of imperfect application to the circumstances of this country.
The main Merchant Shipping Act is the Act of 1894 which was intended to cater for the merchant shipping position in all parts of the British Empire as it was at that time. It was enacted to apply to ships belonging to all parts of the then British Empire and applied throughout to "British ships" i.e. ships owned by British subjects and British registered companies and registered in some port in British territory. Under this Act, a ship, no matter in what part of British territory it was registered, remained a British ship from the time of registry until it became a total loss or was sold to non-British ownership and the law applicable to it was the same whenever it came within British jurisdiction. In such a scheme there was no room for the concept of an independent Irish mercantile marine.
Although unsuited to the new status of, and the conditions in, this country on the establishment of the State in 1922, the Merchant Shipping Acts have remained almost unchanged on the Statute Book. This was largely because there was no pressing need for their replacement, as an oceangoing Irish merchant shipping navy had not come into existence before the war. The whole problem assumes a fresh and new importance with the development of an Irish merchant shipping fleet, and with the change in political relations between this country and the former British Commonwealth which was brought about by the Republic of Ireland Act, 1948, and the Ireland Act, 1949.
Many problems are involved in an amendment and codification of the law relating to merchant shipping, many phases of which have international as well as national implications. The preparation and enactment of legislation to cover the whole field of merchant shipping will be a lengthy process. There are over 1,000 sections in the existing code which, however, it is hoped to reduce substantially.
As part of the general codification and amendment of maritime law to meet Irish requirements, the Bill makes provision for the class of ships to be known as Irish ships. It prescribes that these Irish ships must fly national colours as laid down in the Bill and that only Irish ships may fly the colours or assume Irish national character; these provisions are already in Part I of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, as adapted and in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1947.
The Bill provides, in Section 16, that the following classes of persons only shall be unconditionally entitled in law to own Irish ships:—(i) the Government; (ii) a Minister of State; (iii) Irish citizens; (iv) bodies corporate established under and subject to the law of the State and having their principal place of business in the State. The Bill also provides, however, in Section 20, that any ships, whether owned by the foregoing classes of persons or not, which are registered at a port in the State on the date of introduction of the Bill, shall be deemed to be duly registered. This provision is a saver for those persons or corporations which had, in exercise of a previously existing right, registered vessels at Irish ports.
Provision is also made in the Bill, in Section 19, whereby the Government may make Orders granting rights of registry at Irish ports to citizens or companies of other States in which Irish citizens and companies enjoy corresponding privileges, under the law of such States. The making of such Orders will also be subject to the condition that it is in the national interest to do so.
Apart from making specific provision for "Irish ships" as a special status, the main change involved in relation to ownership and registry is that citizens and companies of Britain and Commonwealth countries will not as heretofore automatically be qualified to own and register an Irish ship. They will only be entitled to do so where a reciprocal Order is made by the Government in respect of the State concerned. A new requirement as to registry is that a ship owned by persons qualified to own an Irish ship and acquired after the enactment of this Bill must be registered in the State unless consent is given to its registry outside the State. This is a logical development of existing law which prohibits the transfer of an Irish ship to foreign registry without approval. The inclusion of a provision whereby consent may be given to register outside the State is designed to permit persons qualified to own an Irish ship to acquire ships abroad, in circumstances where entry on or transfer to the Irish register is not practicable, for example, where ships in the registry of another country could not be acquired if transfer to the Irish register were insisted on.
The provisions of Part I of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, in relation to transfers and transmissions of ownership in ships and to shares in a ship and in relation to mortgages will be re-enacted in the Bill without any significant change.
The existing law governing the survey and tonnage measurement of ships is contained in Part I of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. In that Act the procedure for survey and tonnage measurement is set out in considerable detail. While no substantial departure from the existing provisions is contemplated this Bill will include only the main principles of survey and tonnage measurement. Matters of detail will be dealt with by directions to be made from time to time as required. The object of this change is to ensure flexibility. The survey and tonnage measurement of ships is a matter affected by international agreement. The existing rules for survey and tonnage measurement are at present being studied on an international basis and it is likely that the outcome of this study will result in changes being made which will have to be followed by this country. The inclusion of only the main principles of survey and tonnage measurement in the Bill will enable whatever changes are approved of internationally to be put into effect in this country without the necessity of having recourse to further legislation.
This Bill will repeal the Merchant Shipping Act, 1907, Part I of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, together with certain sections of Part II of that Act and of the Merchant Shipping Acts, 1906 and 1947. The repealed sections will be re-enacted with amendments and adaptations as required in this Bill, which represents the first stage of the codification of Irish merchant shipping law.