Impounding NI-registered fishing boats ‘regrettable’, Varadkar

Taoiseach says law to be changed to restore UK-Ireland fishing rights

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media following a meeting  with business representatives in Northern Ireland to discuss Brexit. Photograph:  Brian Lawless/PA

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks to the media following a meeting with business representatives in Northern Ireland to discuss Brexit. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has described the impounding of two Northern Ireland-registered fishing boats seized in Dundalk Bay this week as a “really regrettable incident”.

Speaking in Belfast on Friday evening, Mr Varadkar said the arrests on Tuesday of two fishermen, Jack Brown and Kevin Trainor, appeared to be “an accident waiting to happen”.

However, he said he was pleased the matter had been resolved without penalty against the two skippers.

The pair had been detained after they were observed by the Irish Navy fishing for shellfish in the exclusive 9.6km (6 mile) Irish territorial limit.

Mr Varadkar referred to how the “voisinage agreement”, giving reciprocal access to fishing waters in the North and the Republic, was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016.

“We are going to change that law to restore the status quo to what it was before 2016,” he said. He said he discussed the matter with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin on Friday and was “confident we can get that legislation through in the next couple of weeks”.

“That would allow us to go back to the situation as it was between 1960 and 2016 where Northern Ireland and Ireland allowed each other’s vessels enter the six-mile limit”.

Mr Varadkar however said it would be helpful if the British government gave assurances that it would not itself withdraw from the 1964 London Fisheries Convention which incorporates the “voisinage” (neighbourly relations) arrangement.

'Zero to do with Brexit'

“It would not make sense for us to change our law and only to find that the law had changed in Northern Ireland as well. But that certainly is not a precondition,” said Mr Varadkar. “This legislation we are going to get through.”

He added: “It would be helpful from the United Kingdom side if they gave us an assurance that they don’t intend to take Northern Ireland out of the London convention because that would just create the same problem North of the border.

“But that is not a precondition as far as I am concerned. Fish do not know boundaries; they certainly do not know political boundaries and we should be able as good neighbours to allow each other’s vessels fish in each other’s waters.”

Mr Varadkar stressed he was not blaming the gardaí or the Navy for the arrests or for “enforcing the law”, and neither was he telling them “not to enforce the law”.

Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Michael Creed insisted the incident was “zero to do with Brexit”.

Fianna Fáil fisheries spokesman Pat “the Cope” Gallagher confirmed his party, as well as Sinn Féin and other parties would meet Government representatives next week in an effort to resolve the issue.

While all agencies involved said it was a routine operation that had no political motive, sources in all the political parties described the timing as unfortunate given the sensitivities around the Brexit process.

According to the Department of Defence, 26 fishing boats were detained in Irish waters by the Navy between 2015 and the end of last year, seven of which were UK registered.

When Mr Creed tried to restore the “voisinage agreement” in 2017 by introducing the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill to the Seanad, Opposition parties submitted dozens of amendments diluting its impact. Senators from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the Greens, Labour and Independent David Norris expressed concern the Bill would give unfettered access to any UK vessel of any size to Irish waters, thus seriously depleting fish stocks.