I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting me here today. I will make an opening statement and then do my best to answer any questions members may have. In the overall context of Brexit, the priority areas for the Government are clear. This is about our citizens, our economy, Northern Ireland, the common travel area and the future of the European Union, EU, itself. We are, and will remain, a strong and committed member of the EU. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs are actively engaged with their European counterparts, as am I, together with other Ministers and senior officials. It will be important for all sides to act responsibly and to approach these negotiations in a constructive, positive and ambitious frame of mind, with a willingness to find compromise.
There are high expectations among parts of the UK industry but – and this is important - to date the UK Government has not explicitly said what changes it may seek to the status quo other than the announcement to leave the 1964 London Convention. In theory, the UK could restrict access to their waters or seek to gain larger quota shares at the expense of others or both. However, that could only happen if the UK was content to ignore the potential repercussions that would certainly arise from the EU side. From an Irish perspective, all we can do is continue to prepare for every eventuality and remain clear as to our objectives. Any attempts to restrict our existing rights and entitlements will be strenuously resisted and that is why we will insist that fisheries must form part of the wider trade negotiations.
A range of serious challenges are presented by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. As I have said previously, for the fisheries sector Brexit poses a very specific set of serious threats over and above the trade implications common to most sectors. If we no longer have access to UK waters or we see a significant drop in our quotas, the trade implications will be the least of our problems. That is of course not to underplay the importance of a good trade outcome for the fisheries sector but rather to emphasise that this sector faces separate challenges that are unique. The United Kingdom's fishing industry has made no secret of its desire for a hard Brexit on fish to ensure that non-UK fishermen will no longer have access to the United Kingdom zone and that all fish in that zone, currently shared with EU partners, will be theirs and only theirs for the taking. Needless to say, such an extreme outcome would be a fundamental threat to the well-being of our sector. On average, 34% of the Irish landings are taken from UK waters. For our largest fishery, mackerel, 64% is taken in UK waters and for our second biggest fishery, prawns, 43% is taken in UK waters. Together, these two fisheries take up nearly half of the total value of our annual quotas.
A key challenge for the Government will be to ensure that fisheries and the wider seafood sector concerns are high on the EU agenda and to ensure that our sector is not isolated in the overall negotiations on a new European Union-United Kingdom relationship. Whereas the action by the United Kingdom in announcing its withdrawal from the 1964 London Fisheries Convention was not unexpected, the signal it suggests of the United Kingdom’s intent to take a hard line on fisheries in the context of Brexit is, as I have said, both unwelcome and unhelpful. It is important to recognise there are no immediate direct impacts for the Irish fishing industry from this action and it will not take effect for two years. The Irish fleet is not significantly dependent on this limited access and the level of United Kingdom activity in our six to 12-mile zone is also very low. Notwithstanding this, I acknowledge that for those who are active in the space, it is a worrying time. It is the message of intent and the potential implications of that intent in the wider 12 to 200-mile zone that causes concern for the negotiations to come. I will deal with the convention in more detail later in my statement. I spoke with Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr. Michael Gove, last week and stressed to him the importance of long-established fishing patterns by the Irish fishing fleet and the importance of these being acknowledged and protected in the context of Brexit.
For the Government there are two clear objectives when it comes to fisheries and Brexit, namely, the maintenance of our existing quota shares and our existing rights of access. These have been and will continue to be my overriding priorities. To achieve these objectives, we must have unity of purpose across member states directly concerned and across the fishing industry. Disunity will only strengthen those in the United Kingdom that seek to exclude all European Union fleets. As the negotiations develop, unilateral sectoral announcements like this one will be dealt with, as this will be, within the Brexit negotiations and there will be no room or intent to address matters in isolation. Apart from the United Kingdom’s huge reliance on and self-interest in the European Union market for a whole range of products and services, it will be hard to ignore the fact that it relies on the European Union for 70% of its seafood exports.
I am working closely with our fishing industry and have had two well-attended public discussions on the potential impact of Brexit on the seafood industry in Dublin and Galway. I have also been working closely with both Mr. Michel Barnier and my fellow Ministers across the EU and I am glad to say we are united in our determination to protect our collective interests. We, of course, have differences with our partners on a number of issues, which is normal, but on Brexit and the threat it poses to our fleets, we are united. During Mr. Barnier’s recent visit to Ireland, I again made it clear to him that fisheries are a priority for the Irish Government. I am satisfied that Mr. Barnier understands the issues and significance of Brexit for Ireland's fisheries sector. Mr. Barnier also supports my view that fisheries negotiations must be progressed in the context of the wider trade negotiations and agreed that transitional arrangements are likely to be important for the fisheries sector. I hope the committee will agree that the Government is cognisant of the potential implications Brexit may have on our fishing industry and every effort is being made to mitigate these implications.
I will now turn my attention to the specific issue of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill. As the committee has been made aware, on 27 October 2016, the Supreme Court issued a judgment in a case taken by a number of mussel seed fishermen in which it determined that fishing by Northern Ireland vessels within the zero to six nautical mile zone of the territorial waters of the State 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 voisinage, or "neighbourhood", arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland have provided reciprocal fishing access for more than 50 years. These arrangements have allowed boats from Northern Ireland to fish in coastal waters in Ireland. They have also allowed and continue to allow Irish-registered fishing boats access to fish in coastal waters in Northern Ireland. The Government approved the publication of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017 to address the issues raised by the Supreme Court judgment and the Bill was published on 13 February 2017. If enacted and commenced, the Bill will fulfil Ireland’s obligations and give the voisinage arrangements a proper legal footing. Given the nature of the Bill, the Oireachtas Business Committee agreed to let the Bill proceed without pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill is being debated in the Seanad and remains on Second Stage.
The committee has asked for an update on the position regarding the mussel seed allocations and particularly those for Lough Foyle.