Dáil Éireann - Volume 350 - 15 May, 1984

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Submarines in Irish Fishing Waters.

5. Mr. G. Collins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he intends to raise the safety of Irish fishing vessels at sea and the conduct of submarines in Irish fishing grounds at the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea and at the Security Council; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

[822] 6. Mr. G. Collins asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he has any plans to raise the question of the safety of Irish fishing vessels at sea at the level of EEC Ministers for Foreign Affairs meeting in political co-operation; if he will ask the Community to take an initiative to draw up a more stringent code of conduct establishing new limitations on the passage of submarines through EEC fishing grounds; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.

Clearly, Irish trawlers should be able to proceed without hindrance or threats to their safety in the fishing grounds around our coasts.

In the recent past, there has been an increase in the incidence of allegations concerning threats to the safety of Irish fishing vessels from the activities of submarines. However, I should point out that in only one such incident has it been established that a submarine was involved. In addition, the allegations of which we are speaking have in all cases related to the high seas as distinct from Irish territorial waters. The right of innocent passage on the high seas is long recognised in international law and is enjoyed by ships of this country as well as all other countries.

Obviously as the Minister for Communications has recently stated in the House, “all craft, above or below the water, must behave with due regard to the safety of other vessels”.

I have, therefore, taken steps to make other governments aware of the Government's concern that the movements of submarines in the waters off our coasts should be conducted with full regard to the safety of merchant and fishing vessels.

Specifically our concern has been made known to our partners within European political co-operation — and also through the diplomatic channel to the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union. In addition, my Department are currently examining the most effective way of dealing with this question within the framework of the International [823] Maritime Organisation — the IMO — which is the appropriate United Nations body.

Mr. R. Burke: The Minister of State, quite rightly, has made the Government's view known with regard to the passage of these craft. Did he get any response from other governments, in particular from that of our near neighbour?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: It is not the practice to disclose confidential discussions which take place between this country and the governments of other countries. I can confirm that the Government take a very serious view of the incidents which have occurred, are greatly concerned about them and are taking every step possible to ensure that there will not be a repetition of such incidents.

Mr. R. Burke: The Minister of State made the point that the Government had contacts with other countries about the passage of submarines but he is not prepared to tell us the response, if any, which he got. Did he get a positive response from our fellow members of the EEC? The Government seem to be playing down this threat to our fishermen——

An Ceann Comhairle: A question please, Deputy.

Mr. R. Burke: Why did the Minister of State emphasise only one incident when a craft was sunk and there was positive identification of a submarine? There have been many other incidents. Does the Government doubt the word of the fishing community with regard to the other incidents which have taken place?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I must stress that it is not appropriate to disclose confidential discussions. I accept the Deputy's point that there have been a number of incidents affecting Irish and other vessels, including Danish and French. The problem is not confined to this country and, in our efforts at international fora, I anticipate that other countries, especially those who have been affected by such [824] incidents, will be prepared to join us in attempting to find an international solution to the problem.

Mr. De Rossa: To which countries have the Government made representations concerning these incidents? Could the Minister also indicate what concrete steps have been taken by the Government to prevent a recurrence of these incidents?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: As I mentioned in my original reply, we have made our concern known to our partners in the Community within the context of European political co-operation. We have also made our concern known, through diplomatic channels, to the US and USSR governments. We are not taking these problems lightly. What was the second part of the question?

Mr. De Rossa: What steps have the Government taken to prevent a recurrence of these incidents?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Deputy will have to understand that I cannot guarantee to this House that there will not be recurrence. These incidents have occurred on the high seas. We are trying (1) to make our concern known to the countries I mentioned and (2) to see how we could have the matter dealt with in an effective way and, in particular, within the framework of the International Maritime Organisation. Those are the steps we are taking at the moment. While I cannot guarantee to the House that they will prevent a recurrence, all our efforts are devoted to finding a solution to the problem which will ensure that there will not be a recurrence.

Mr. Lenihan: Would the Minister agree that, apart from the elements to which he has referred in relation to the near waters of the Irish coast, an entirely new dimension has been raised by the proposed regime in regard to the law of the sea which involves the high seas? We have a vested interest in the development of an economic zone into the Atlantic off our coast and we will be involved in what could be very interesting mineral and [825] other developments to the west of our coast. This is far more serious matter than occasional damage done near our coast, and it involves the whole traditional idea of freedom of the high seas which has now been circumscribed by the law of the sea as proposed. Would the Minister agree that this matter should be followed up in a far more detailed and planned manner than merely taking account of ad hoc incidents as they arise off our coast?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I must confess I do not see the immediate relevance of the Law of the Sea Convention. Basically what we are talking about is the right of innocent passage on the high seas which is long recognised in international law and that right is not in any way circumscribed by the Law of the Sea Convention.

Mr. Lenihan: If there is to be development of economic zones, and in our case an economic zone into the Atlantic, the development and exploration of that zone involves knowledge in regard to movement of vessels in that area. This whole traditional concept of free movement, without information being conveyed between the coastal states concerned, represents a very real danger to the proper exploitation and development of these resources. There must be a regime accompanying the Law of the Sea Convention of exchange of information so that the free passage of such vessels, which has been the traditional way, is compatible with the appropriate economic development of the ocean zones.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Deputy is raising two issues. One is the economic development of the sea bed. I presume he is referring to oil exploration.

An Ceann Comhairle: These questions relate to fishing grounds and to widen them to deal with minerals or other resources would be a separate matter. Oil and other minerals are not covered by the questions.

[826] Mr. Lenihan: The Government will have to face up to this matter.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: We have faced up to it in relation to the Law of the Sea Convention. Anything which might arise under that convention cannot affect in any way the right of free passage of peaceful vessels on the high seas.

Mr. Lenihan: There will have to be a rationalisation.

Mr. Daly: Is the Minister aware that there have been reports of sightings of submarines within our territorial seas and within our jurisdiction? Under the Law of the Sea Convention there is power to introduce legislation. Have the Government any plans to introduce legislation in that regard?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: On that one I will have to take refuge in the stock reply that it is a separate question. The steps we may take under the Law of the Sea Convention are a separate issue. I understand the Deputy's concern but I believe it is a separate issue.

Mr. Lenihan: It is a most important matter for Ireland.

An Ceann Comhairle: Question No.5 asks if it is intended to raise at the United Nations the safety of Irish fishing vessels at sea and the conduct of submarines in Irish fishing grounds. Question No. 6 suggests that the matter of submarines should be raised at EEC Ministers level. To widen that into a discussion on new legislation would be to raise a separate question.

Mr. Daly: The Minister must have information available.

An Ceann Comhairle: He could have information about a variety of matters.

Mr. R. Burke: Have the Government taken any initiative such as the initiative mentioned in Question No.6 about drawing up a more stringent code of conduct establishing new limitations on the passage [827] of submarines through EEC fishing grounds?

An Ceann Comhairle: That is another question.

Mr. R. Burke: That is Question No. 6. He has not answered that. He keeps talking about the right of innocent passage. Surely it is nonsense to talk about the right of innocent passage on the high seas when we are talking about submarines pulling fishing boats through fishing grounds in the Irish Sea. That is an exaggeration as between innocence and the high seas. Have the Government done anything about a more stringent code of conduct?

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: As I mentioned earlier, we raised this matter within the Community context. It is being looked at very carefully in the Department.

Mr. R. Burke: The Government raised it, but did they ask for a more stringent code of conduct? Was it a matter of saying over lunch that we have a problem with submarines?

An Ceann Comhairle: This is a very, very wide discussion and it is not in order.

Mr. Lenihan: The Minister introduced the question of this anachronism of the free passage of ships and boats on the high seas. Does he realise that, as a legal concept, that is an imperial relic which no longer has any validity or acceptance in a period of the world's history in which we have adopted a law of the sea concept——

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is making a speech. It may be a learned speech, but it is not in order. I am moving on the next question.

Mr. Lenihan: The Law of the Sea Convention runs counter to the sort of imperial rights which were exercised by certain countries over the centuries about the free passage of ships at sea. It is no longer relevant to the new concept of coastal [828] development of waters adjacent to coasts including the Irish coast.

An Ceann Comhairle: Ceist 7.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I am directed to take Question No. 7. My reference to the right of innocent passage was to all boats and fishing boats which travel on the high seas, not submarines.