The Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017 which gives Northern Ireland fishing boats legal footing to fish within the Republic of Ireland’s 0-6nm zone, passed through the Dáil (28/3) by 72:8 votes.

The Bill sought to amend a neighbourly, non-binding arrangement of more than fifty years between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The voisinage arrangement recognises reciprocal fishing access inside 0-6nm inshore waters.

The purpose of the Bill is to “restore access” to Northern Ireland boats to fish under the terms of the agreement. Access is subject to the same conditions that apply to Irish sea-fishing boats, Minister Michael Creed told the House.

“There is no question of preferential treatment for Northern Ireland vessels while fishing in our six-mile zone. They will continue to be subject to the same measures that apply to Irish-registered fishing boats” he stressed.

Background

A Supreme Court judgment (October 27, 2016) found that fishing by Northern Ireland boats in these waters was not permitted by law, but upheld a High Court finding that the while the arrangements were not invalid, the arrangements were not sufficiently covered in domestic law.

Government subsequently approved the publication of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill to address access for Northern Ireland vessels. The Bill was successfully challenged in the Dáil in late 2017.

Industry concern

Francis O’Donnell, CEO of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation questioned why the Bill was being ‘rushed’ through now to binding legislation.

It is “premature” to agree a bi-lateral reciprocal arrangement until the outcome of Brexit is known, he told Inshore Ireland.

“Why are we now rushing in to put an arrangement in place that will legally, for the first time ever, allow vessels from the UK in the 0-6nm mile limit. “We need to get away from this idea of vessels from Northern Ireland – they are UK vessels that we will be giving access to fish.”

Irish boats do not fish within the same zone in Northern Ireland, he said. “We don’t need the water, we don’t fish there….so it’s not a necessity for us.”

O’Donnell also pointed to vessels ‘owned and operated’ in Northern Ireland, as identified in the Bill:

“In this day and age, this means nothing because a large corporation could own and operate a vessel out of Northern Ireland; it doesn’t necessarily have to be registered there. We have an issue with this.”

The IFPO leader argued that some ‘contracting parties’ (e.g. Belgium, France, Spain) to the London Fisheries Convention, could be included under this new legal arrangement:

“We believe, although we’re told by the State that this is not the case, any contracting party to the Convention could argue that if Northern Ireland gets access inside the 6nm zone, they too are entitled to the same access.”

According to the IFPO’s legal advisors, access to at least six other countries to Ireland’s six-mile zone “cannot be ruled out and is very likely and in fact probable”.

During the Dáil debate, Minister Creed however said much “scaremongering” had been made around access arrangements to Northern Ireland vessels.

These “will not change from what they were before. They will simply regain the fishing access they have had for decades under the ‘voisinage’ arrangement.”

The Minister added that Northern Ireland vessels wishing to avail of the arrangements to fish for quota species under the Common Fisheries Policy “will need to have the necessary authorisation from their own fisheries administration to avail of UK quota” for the species in question.

“This has always been the case and will continue to be the case.”

On the access issue, Minister Creed said the Bill “clearly stipulates” the boats that may avail of the access:

“What we are doing via this Bill is to reinstate arrangements which have been in operation up the point of the Supreme Court judgment and which have been suspended on our side only pending the passage of this legislation.”

Referring to concerns that mussel seed could be removed for use outside either jurisdication, Minister Creed said anyone engaged in the sector “must” use seed mussel on the island of Ireland:

“It is not that they [Dutch corporations] can pillage the seed and take it elsewhere. They have to use it on the island of Ireland so it is creating jobs and supporting employment on this island.

Dutch corporations he said were not active “except insofar as they may be Dutch ownership interests in the Northern Ireland fleet, as they are in the register in the Republic of Ireland.

The next stage is for President Higgins to sign the Bill into an Act which must be within five days and no more than seven days of the passing of the Bill.

Inshore Ireland understands President Higgins has been asked  if the Bill could be reviewed by the Supreme Court:

“This is probably the first time…..that stakeholders are actually saying ‘no’. We believe this is of such magnitude and importance to us that we would like the President to look at this,” Francis O’Donnell stressed to Inshore Ireland.