The Voisinage arrangements are long-standing reciprocal arrangements which have allowed fishing boats from Northern Ireland access to fish within the 0 to 6 nautical mile zone of the territorial waters of the State and vice versa. On the basis of the provisions of Articles 2 and 9 of the London Fisheries Convention, pre-existing reciprocal arrangements were re-affirmed at the time by means of an exchange of letters in the 1960s between the UK/Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Common Fisheries Policy (Article 5 of Regulation 1380/2013) provides for the continuation of such neighbourhood arrangements.
On 27 October 2016, the Supreme Court issued a judgment in a case taken by a number of mussel seed fishermen in which it found that fishing by Northern Ireland boats within the 0 to 6 nautical mile zone of the territorial waters of the State under the Voisinage arrangements is not permitted by law. 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 Supreme Court in fact noted that the arrangements were a sensible recognition at official level of practice and tradition, where fishing boats traditionally fished neighbouring waters.
The application of the judgment is to all fishing by Northern Irish fishing boats in the 0 to 6 nautical mile zone, measured from the baselines, relying on the Voisinage arrangements. The Government approved the publication of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill to address issues raised by the Supreme Court judgment, in so far as it relates to access for Northern Irish vessels. If enacted and commenced, the Bill will give the Voisinage arrangements a proper legal footing. The Bill was published in February 2017 and is available on the Oireachtas website. While the Bill proposes to restore access to Northern Ireland vessels to fish under the terms of the Voisinage arrangements, this access will be subject to the same conditions that apply to Irish sea-fishing boats. The Bill is currently being debated in the Seanad. Access continues to be provided for Irish sea-fishing boats to the Northern Ireland 0 to 6 nautical mile zone, although the UK has expressed concerns about the unequal situation which currently prevails.
I have regular and intensive engagement with the fishing industry including the inshore fisheries sector where these issues have been discussed. Most recently, I had positive engagement with the representatives from the fisheries producer organisations and the National Inshore Fisheries Forum over the course of a detailed and considered consultation session on Thursday last, 21 March at the National Seafood Centre in Clonakilty.
I now intend to proceed with completing the passage of this legislation as a matter of urgency. This will include an amendment which will ensure that there is no question of preferential treatment for Northern Irish vessels while fishing in the 0-6 nautical mile zone. Access will only be granted on the same terms as are applicable to Irish vessels. During the course of the forthcoming debate I also intend to speak to many of the key issues articulated by the industry including concerns regarding the limiting of access to Northern Irish vessels only, and the assurances received from the UK Government in terms of the legal reciprocity of the arrangement.