Russia’s naval drills planned for next week are the first exercises by a foreign military in at least 20 years that have required an Irish maritime warning.
While other navies and air forces regularly transit through Ireland’s exclusive economic one (EEZ), live fire drills are unheard of in recent years, aside from those carried out by the Irish Naval Service.
The Department of Transport told The Irish Times it has issued 39 marine notices relating to military exercises in the last two decades, all of which related to exercises carried out by the Irish Defence Forces. The one exception is the Russian drills planned for next month.
A Russian flotilla, believed to contain five ships, including a large missile cruiser, continues to make its way down the west coast of Norway in the direction of Ireland.
Naval sources said they believe these ships are likely due to take part in the drills some 240km off Ireland’s southwest for five days from next Thursday.
The department issued a marine notice on Wednesday to all seafarers with the location of the exercises, warning that they “will include the use of naval artillery and launching of rockets”.
“Given the nature of the planned exercises and the presence of naval forces, vessels and crew are advised of serious safety risks in the operational area,” the department said.
Seafarers were advised to “navigate their vessel to ensure safety at all times”, it added.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has expressed concern for the safety of west Cork fishermen who plan to peacefully protest Russian military exercises by continuing to fish in the area.
Mr Martin said his priority was the welfare of the fishermen who are engaging in the protest and he warned them that they should exercise caution.
“People have to be first and foremost conscious of safety, and in our view that is not the safest thing to be doing, fishing close to where military drilling is taking place,” he said.
“We will at some stage engage with the fishermen on this and take advice on that. There needs to be balance here and proportionality on how it is addressed with safety always at the forefront.”
One fishing industry group, which was involved in discussions with the Russian ambassador Yuri Filatov about the naval exercises in Dublin on Wednesday, said it only discovered after the meeting that Irish trawlers would not be fishing next week in the vicinity of the navy drills.
Brendan Byrne, chief executive of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association (IFPEA), provided The Irish Times with a map created by marine newspaper The Skipper, in consultation with fishermen, showing that trawlers would be fishing some distance away from the location of the planned military exercises.
The trawlers would be fishing for prawns in the Porcupine Bank area to the north of the designated area where the Russian drills will take place.
The map, he said, was drafted for IFPEA using the coordinates published by the department and cross-referenced with the coordinates for the most southerly point for the fishing in that area.
“The net result is there is already a vast buffer zone between both areas. Had the department shared this data with the industry earlier, all of this could have been avoided,” he said.
Mr Byrne said that it was clear to him that there would be a “natural safety zone” between the Russian naval vessels and the Irish fishing trawlers.
He was responding after the Russian embassy issued a denial to Mr Byrne’s statement to the media on Wednesday that Mr Filatov and the fishing industry group had agreed to a “buffer zone” between the Russian naval vessels and the Irish fishing boats during the military drills.
An embassy spokesman said this was “not true”.
“The ambassador has listened carefully to the concerns that the Irish fishermen expressed and explained to them that these drills will not do any harm to their interests,” he said. “He also urged them to refrain from any provocative actions which might endanger all involved.”
Up to 60 Irish trawlers are planning to fish in the area to the north of the Russian drills location from February 1st when the prawn quotas open up.
The exercises take place between February 3rd and 8th, according to the department's marine notice issued on the back of information given by Russia to the Irish Aviation Authority.
Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, said there would be no fishing activity in the location of the Russian drills at the time they are taking place.
Pelagic fishing vessels “from time to time fish in the vicinity of the Russian drill area but the blue whiting fishery will not be starting until around the middle of February and it is usually further north than the drill area”, he said.
Other fishing, for albacore tuna, takes place there but not until the summer months, he said.
“The only other pelagic species that maybe in area is boarfish but I am pretty sure it is not a problem,” he added.