The Voisinage Agreement – a peculiar prosecution

Conways Solicitors recently concluded what can only be regarded as as somewhat unusual defence of a Fisheries Prosecution.

The State contended that a Northern Ireland Registered vessel had breached fisheries law by fishing in between the 12 and 6 mile limit. The vessel had been fishing off the coast of Galway.

The first time the vessel was boarded and presented a preprinted  statement by the then Minister with responsibility for fisheries, Simon Coveney TD, in Dail Eireann that NI registered vessels could fish in Irish waters as a result of the Voisinage Agreement.

This was an agreement dating back to 1965.

The then Minister stated in the Dail on the 21st of February 2012

“In accordance with the ‘Voisinage Agreement’ between Ireland and the United Kingdom, registered fishing vessels from Northern Ireland are permitted to fish within Ireland’s exclusive fishery limits on the same basis and under the same conditions as Irish registered vessels, for as long as Irish registered vessels enjoy similar reciprocal rights to fish within the exclusive fishery limits of the United Kingdom in the waters surrounding Northern Ireland. This Agreement applies to all species of fish. The Voisinage Agreement is a so-called ‘neighbourhood agreement’ under the London Fisheries Convention 1964 and was memorialised by an exchange of letters between Ireland and the United Kingdom in 1965.”

The Navy warned the Skipper as to future conduct and left. The Skipper consulted with his PO and was told he was free to fish exactly as the Minister had confirmed.

He returned to the coast off Galway. After a short while he was boarded again and arrested for fishing illegally between the  12 to 6 mile Exclusive Fisheries limit.

After discussions with the prosecuting authorities it became clear that the basis of the prosecution was the suggestion that the vessel did not meet the terms of the 1965 agreement despite the very plain terms of what the Minister said in the Dail.

The SFPA orchestrated the prosecution.

At the same time, the Director of Operations of the SFPA was giving evidence in High Court pertaining to a claim brought by mussel Fishermen that the SFPA (along with other organisations) was failing to prosecute NI mussel fishermen from coming down to the South and dredging in Irish waters. The SFPA and the Department defended the claim on the basis of what the Minister had said in the Dail and added that it was now part of the Good Friday Agreement in terms of North-South co-operation.

This was raised in the Circuit Court in Galway. It was pointed out that the two arguments could not co-exist.

Not withstanding what was going on in the High Court, the State persisted with the prosecution in the Circuit Court and an application was made by Conways Solicitors for a preliminary examination as to whether or not there was in fact any law broken.

Judge Rory McCabe heard the application as set out above. He granted the application and disimised the prosecution on the grounds that there was no case to answer.

Subsequently he granted an order for costs for the Defendant.

The decision was not appealed.

Dermot Conway

Conways Solicitors