Dáil Éireann - Volume 387 - 07 March, 1989

Adjournment Debate. - Sinking of Belgian Trawler.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Hugh Byrne gave me notice of his intention to raise on the Adjournment the incident involving the sinking of a Belgian trawler in the Irish Sea allegedly by a submarine.

[2624] Mr. Byrne: I thank you for giving me permission to raise this vital issue of submarine activity in the Irish Sea. There is as I have said on many occasions before as much submarine traffic in the Irish Sea as there is vehicular traffic in O'Connell Street. The loss of the Belgian trawler and the five crew members is the latest in a succession of incidents involving submarines with various seagoing vessels mainly fishing trawlers. The list is endless, a Cheann Comhairle, but it is necessary at this stage to list them. It is my intention to go through them in chronological order.

On 18 April 1982 we had the sinking of the Sheralga by HMS Porpoise with all fishermen on board left to drown. Britain at first denied that they were involved but when they were flushed out they admitted it. On 18 April 1982 a fishing vessel, Crimson Dawn, had nets entangled, was towed along by a submarine entangled in the same nets, and the nets, costing £15,000, were eventually lost. In the summer of 1982 the Galvanor disappeared losing all its crew with the suspicion of interference by submarines. On 12 January 1983 the Site d'Aleth, a Breton vessel was lost off the Wexford coast with ten crew members drowned and there was clear indication of interference by a submarine.

In 1983 a yacht was struck by a submarine, believed to be the HMS Opos-sum, off Wexford. On 3 February 1984 the vessel Jeanne de Lorraine was towed backwards arising from an entanglement with a submarine. In December 1984 a fishing vessel, the Algrie became entangled with the HMS Spartan off the Cornwall coast. On 8 April 1984 a fishing vessel became entangled with a submarine off the eastern Irish coast, between Dublin and the Isle of Man — its nets were cut and it was towed for three miles by the submarine.

In 1984 also a US submarine surfaced in the middle of a fishing fleet which was working from Kilmore Quay off the coast of Wexford, in my own constituency, and thank God there was no accidents. When those fishermen contacted me they told [2625] me that as soon as the submarine surfaced they left that area for home in absolute fear of their lives. On 30 July 1984 a submarine was in tow off the Isle of Man leading to a suspicion of a serious submarine accident or incident at sea. On 11 August 1984 another submarine was seen to be in a tow off the Isle of Man's south coast, again giving rise to speculation about accidents or incidents at sea. It has been confirmed since then that the submarine was the Nathaniel Greene. She had lost a propeller and was returned under tow to Holy Lock. That submarine went back into commission and in 1986 she was returned under tow once again to Holy Lock, minus a large section of her bow. She had lain on the sea bed for three days. That submarine contained two reactors. I thank God we did not have a release of radioactivity. That submarine was eventually towed to the USA where she has since been decommissioned.

I would like to thank today's issue of The Irish Times for the following information. In may 1984 from Portavogie, County Down, the Willing Land and the Family Friend cut their nets to avoid sinking while being towed astern. In the same month the South Stack disappeared south east of the Isle of Man with all hands lost. On 20 February 1985 a Scottish fishing vessel the Mhari L disappeared off the Isle of Man with all hands, in good weather and no distress call was made. A damaged British submarine entered Fastane base 24 hours later. The Ministry of Defence said that the Mhari L was dragged under by a telephone cable on the seabed. The relatives of those lost are still investigating that incident and pressing for an inquiry.

On 18 February 1987 a Northern Ireland boat, Summer Morn, was towed astern for several hours by a US submarine. The submarine surfaced after RAF helicopters were alerted by using a hydrophone. In fact, the media were invited to see the final goings on in that incident. On 20 September 1987 four were drowned when the Boy Shaun, a crab fishing boat, was sunk by a “freak” wave off County Donegal. A submarine [2626] was later spotted in that area by Irish Press reporters. On 9 November 1987 there was another incident involving the loss of £20,000 worth of nets off the Isle of Man. On 16 July 1988 the yacht Drum collided with the HMS Oberon leaving a 20ft. gash above the waterline. In July 1988 the yacht Dalriada was sunk by the HMS Conqueror off the Northern Ireland coast. This is the infamous submarine which sunk the Belgrano.

On 5 September 1988 the crab fishing boat Inspire, sank off the Welsh coast when hit by a freak wave. Submarines on exercises were known to be in the area. Four people were drowned. On 3 January 1989 an Ayr based trawler was struck near the Clyde by the US submarine Will Rogers. On 22 January 1989 a Fleetwood trawler the Lau Ann was towed astern by a submarine for three-quarters of an hour off the Mull of Kintyre. That brings us to the latest incident. A Belgian trawler, a relatively new trawler, a 1973 beamer 143 tonnes, almost the size of a small coaster, the Tijl Uilenspiegel sank in the Irish Sea. It appears that the Tijl Uilenspiegel was towed under with the loss of all five crew members. One body and some fish boxes is all that has yet been recovered.

I have now established from contacts in various locations that a Posoidon class submarine left its British base at Faslane on 3 March. It was in the area of the accident and returned to base on Monday, 6 March — three days at sea for a submarine which normally stays at sea for a month.

The Celtic League in the Isle of Man, under the leadership of Mr. Bernard Moffatt, keep a very close eye on all submarine activity in the Irish Sea. They know full well that it was an incident involving that particular submarine. The British Ministry for Defence, as they always do, have denied involvement and claim complete innocence. We all know from the Sheralga incident that the British denied responsibility in that case but when evidence was produced they were forced to admit they were to blame. It took some four years for the British Government to recognise and pay Ray [2627] McEvoy, the skipper of that trawler, for his losses.

I have listed 25 incidents and, of course, there are many more involving innocent fishing trawlers and the furtive movement of British, American, German, Dutch, Russian and French submarines all playing war games in the Irish Sea.

Fifty fishermen have lost their lives in nine years as a result of this activity and the value of property lost has been colossal. The most recent trawler to be lost cost in the region of £1 million. Despite pleadings by our Government, individuals, fishermen's organisations, the International Maritime Organisation and the Opposition parties in Britain, the British Government continue to ignore the loss of life and to respond with a “how dare you ask questions” attitude. The attitude of the British Government, who contribute most to this devastation, baffles me because of their arrogance towards their people, particularly towards their fishermen. Their arrogance can be clearly seen by the fact that every day they pour one million gallons of nuclear polluted waste into the Irish Sea, a stretch of water regarded as the most filthy and polluted in the world, and a stretch of water lapping their shores as well as ours. If the British people are prepared to live in their own squalor then so be it, but they cannot and should not impose it on us.

It is well known that the Irish Sea is used for the shipment of nuclear wastes to Sellafield for reprocessing from as far afield as Japan and other countries where nuclear power is used as a source of energy. Many ships use the Irish Sea for this purpose, carrying this lethal cargo. God forbid that any of them should collide with a nuclear submarine. It is unthinkable what the results would be if this happened. While this may sound alarmist the same might have been said of all accidents, those reported, unreported, and few admitted to, before such accidents occurred. As I have said, fishermen are operating in fear of their lives because of the record of death and [2628] destruction in the Irish Sea. That Sea is a well-known fishing ground and as such it should be respected.

Appeals made by the Celtic League, our Government and fishing organisations to the International Maritime Organisation have had a poor and watery response in that resolutions were passed at that organisation's gathering calling for a cessation of submarine activity in the Irish Sea but unfortunately these amounted to little more than a public relations exercise. There would appear to be an international conspiracy to cover up all activity and submarine incidents. The question must be posed: are the NATO member countries engaging in coordinated exercises in the Irish Sea? If that is the case, and I suspect it is, obviously the Russians are keeping a close watching brief. We are now in the position that the game is being played on our ground but we are not even allowed to see the match.

Last year was an historic year in that tremendous progress was made towards international peace when President Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev agreed to a scaling-down of nuclear weaponry. Not alone was there an agreement but there was a physical reduction in Cruise missiles. This move was hailed worldwide as a wonderful step forward by the Super Powers, alleviating considerably the fears of every person on this earth. The Russians are now pulling their submarines from the Irish Sea for economic reasons but they are also taking another step forward in the peace process. I ask the Minister to call on the British Government and the Government of the USA to reciprocate by closing their bases at Faslane and Holy Lock and rid us on this side of the Irish Sea of this terrible menace against which we are helpless.

I ask the Minister to have the accident which occurred last Sunday night followed up to establish what precisely happened, who was involved and how and why it happened. We must remember it might have been five Irish fishermen who lost their lives. I ask the Minister to make contact immediately with the offending nations to ensure that the Irish [2629] Sea is as it should be — free from the furtive activity of submarines whose orders are to “steam on regardless”. It is time to call a stop. Again, I appeal to the Minister, now armed with a litany of death, destruction and fear, to demand a response from Britain, the USA, the USSR, France, the Netherlands and Germany. It may be a tall order but our concern must be for our fishermen and our people.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Calleary): The incident to which Deputy Byrne has referred involved the Belgian registered trawler Tijl Uilenspiegel which sank in the Iris Sea on Sunday night. As the Deputy correctly said, the vessel involved which was built in 1972 was 143 tonnes and 30.7 metres in length. While it is difficult to be absolutely precise, the incident is thought to have taken place 35 miles west of the United Kingdom and 20 miles south-west of the Isle of Man at the approximate co-ordinates 54 degrees north and 4 degrees west. The incident thus took place outside Irish territorial waters. Some debris from the vessel was found floating in the area and, as Deputy Byrne said, one body has been found and four are still missing. The incident occurred in the UK area of responsibility for search and rescue.

There is no information available to the Government that would suggest that the sinking of the trawler was caused by a submarine. Until the exact cause of the sinking of the vessel can be fully and accurately determined, suggestions that its sinking may have been caused by a submarine must be regarded as speculative. It will be a matter for the Belgian authorities to undertake the necessary investigations regarding the incident as the vessel involved was Belgian registered. The Irish Government deeply regret the loss of life involved.

While the sinking took place in the Irish Sea Deputy Byrne will have noted that it occurred outside Irish territorial waters which extend to 12 miles off our coast. The location of the incident and the fact that the vessel involved was not [2630] of Irish registration means that there is no direct involvement or role for the Irish Government in this case. We will, however, be keeping a watching brief.

It is important to state that while Deputy Byrne has listed a very long number of incidents in relation to submarines, it is known that to date there have been only two confirmed incidents involving submarines and Irish registered vessels.

The Government are of course, conscious of submarine activity in the Irish Sea and elsewhere off our coasts and of the potential hazards this traffic gives rise to. As Deputy Byrne is, no doubt, already aware because of his very long interest in this problem, the Government's concerns about safety of fishing trawlers in these circumstances have already been brought to the attention of all parties concerned, through the channels of the International Maritime Organisation, which the Government consider is the most appropriate and effective means of pursuing the matter. Ireland sponsored a resolution at the IMO aimed at focussing attention on the problems posed to fishermen by submarine traffic. The initiative resulted in the unanimous adoption on 17 November 1987 by the General Assembly of the IMO of a resolution entitled “Avoidance by Submerged Submarines of Fishing Vessels and Their Fishing Gear”. It is our hope that this resolution will make a significant contribution to the avoidance of incidents involving surface vessels and submerged submarines at sea.

While under international law, submarines exercising the right of innocent passage travelling through the territorial seas must remain on the surface and show identification, under international law, all nations have free access to the international waters beyond the territorial sea and submarines may remain submerged in these waters. Like Deputy Byrne, I also should like to see submarines leaving the Irish Sea.

The Deputy will recall that in the course of his address to the Third Special Session on Disarmament in New York in [2631] June 1988 the Taoiseach used the opportunity to voice his concern about the dangers posed by nuclear submarines. He referred to nuclear submarine traffic in busy coastal shipping and fishing zones. Such as the Irish Sea, and emphasised that this was a matter of considerable concern to Ireland.

[2632] Let me assure Deputy Byrne that the Government will continue to pursue all opportunities to draw attention to the hazards to vessels from submarine activity and, in general, to enhance the safety of vessels at sea.

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 8 March 1989.