The UK cannot continue to accept the unequal application of a deal with the Republic of Ireland over fishing rights, a Government spokesman has said.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) representative was speaking on Thursday evening after two UK fishing boats were seized by the Irish Navy amid an ongoing impasse over their right to fish in Ireland’s waters.
The Northern Ireland-registered vessels were detained by the Irish Naval Service in Dundalk bay and have been impounded at nearby Clogherhead port.
No arrests have been made over the matter, which is set to be heard by Co Louth District Court on Friday morning.
The move by Irish authorities comes amid an ongoing fishing dispute caused by the demise of an informal deal between the UK and Irish governments.
The Voisinage agreement, which collapsed months after the Brexit referendum, was a reciprocal understanding between the UK and Irish Republic dating back to the mid-1960s that allowed vessels from Northern Ireland to fish in Irish inshore waters (zero to six nautical miles from shore) and vice versa.
But the agreement hit the rocks in late 2016 when a number of Irish fishermen brought a case to the state’s Supreme Court, challenging the right of Northern Ireland vessels to fish in their waters.
The court ruled Voisinage was an informal agreement of insufficient legal standing to formally grant access to foreign registered boats.
That decision effectively banned Northern Ireland boats from fishing in Irish inshore waters – a move that impacted fishermen north of the border who traded in species such as lobsters, crabs, mussels and whelks.
The UK has continued to recognise the Voisinage agreement so Irish vessels remain free to fish inshore waters around Northern Ireland.
After the Supreme Court decision, the Dublin government pledged to introduce legislation to give legal effect to Voisinage.
We cannot accept the current unequal application of this arrangement indefinitely.Defra spokesman
But two years on, the law change has not yet materialised, with many politicians south of the border opposed to draft proposals forwarded by the government.
Fishermen in Northern Ireland have accused the Irish authorities of stalling, claiming the issue has become caught up in Brexit and is potentially being used as a bargaining chip for future negotiations on how Irish vessels would access UK waters once it leaves the EU.
The Defra spokesman said: “The UK Government wants to see continued co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland over fisheries matters.
“However, we cannot accept the current unequal application of this arrangement indefinitely and continue to explore solutions to reinstate a level playing field as quickly as possible for the benefit of all our fishermen.”
Ireland’s Department of Defence earlier confirmed in a statement that it was tasked to Dundalk bay by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), “in accordance with a Service Level Agreement”.
It said: “The alleged offences for both vessels were: Vessels illegally fishing within the Exclusive Fishery Limits of the State, contrary to Section 10(1) of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, and illegal entry into the Exclusive Fishery Limits of the State at a time when prohibited so to do, contrary to Section 8(1) of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006.”
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Dublin highlighted the SFPA is an independent body which enforces sea fisheries law in Ireland.
He stressed Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed has no role in the execution of SFPA’s functions.
The spokesman said it is important to note the Supreme Court had ruled the Voisinage arrangements are not invalid, only that there is currently insufficient provision for them in domestic Irish 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,” he said.
“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.
The Irish authorities have taken a very high-handed approach to people trying to earn a living.Jim Wells, DUP
“If enacted and commenced, the Bill will give the Voisinage arrangements a proper legal footing. The Bill was published in February 2017, commenced debate in the Seanad shortly thereafter and remains before the Oireachtas.”
The Department of Defence said that in 2018, the Irish Naval Service detained seven fishing vessels, two of which were UK registered.
A Garda spokesman said on Thursday: “An Irish naval vessel the LE Orla detained two UK-registered boats fishing in Dundalk bay.
“They were escorted to port in Clogherhead where they were detained by Gardai under the 2006 Fisheries Act on February 27, 2019.
“An order was issued at Dundalk district court for 48 hours in respect of both vessels. They remain at Clogherhead.”
Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said it is time to “stand up for Northern Ireland’s fishermen”.
He said: “The reciprocal basis of the Voisinage agreement has been breached, so why are we still pretending it exists and operating it to the disadvantage of local fishermen?”
He called on the authorities to ban Irish boats from Northern Ireland waters, adding: “Doing nothing is no longer an option.”
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, speaking in the House of Commons, said it appeared the crews had been seized “without a huge amount of justification”.
DUP MP Jim Shannon added he had lodged a request for an urgent question on the matter, noting: “I am also appalled at the actions of the Republic of Ireland Government – seizing boats which belong to this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
DUP Assembly member Jim Wells, whose constituency office is close to Kilkeel harbour in South Down, said many local fishermen once relied on the waters around Dundalk bay for their livelihoods.
“The Irish authorities have taken a very high-handed approach to people trying to earn a living,” he said.
“I really do hope this issue can be resolved.”