A deal between Ireland and Scotland to allow Irish fishing vessels to return to Rockall has been vetoed by UK foreign secretary David Cameron. Full details of the proposed deal – which constitutionally falls within the remit of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not with the Scottish government or Defra – were not published.

The agreement, which has been the subject of negotiations for several years between Scottish and Irish officials, would have allowed Irish vessels to fish for species including monkfish, squid and haddock within 12 miles of Rockall.

Irish vessels had been banned from fishing within 12 miles of the uninhabited rock since Britain quit the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy as part of Brexit. The issue has been the subject of a simmering diplomatic row ever since, with Irish vessels threatened with arrest by Scottish fisheries protection vessels.

The loss of access to the squid fishery around the rock was estimated to be costing Irish vessels almost €8m a year, according to Bord Iascaigh Mhara. Although it is only the 12-mile radius around the rock itself that is off limits, fishermen from both Ireland and Scotland confirm that the best fishing is found within it.

A recent current affairs documentary on Irish language television channel TG4 quoted the Scottish government as expressing optimism over a favourable outcome for both states.

A Scottish government spokesperson told the programme: “There have been developments in recent months which increase our confidence that arrangements can be agreed under the Scottish-Irish bilateral framework which will be satisfactory for both sides.”

The deal would have involved Irish marine scientists conducting research in the area that would be shared with the Scottish fishing fleet.

The official position of the British government is that it vetoed the deal because it could not see the benefits for Scottish fishermen, and also because it would have had to be locked into the Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement.

However, The Irish Times, which reported that foreign secretary David Cameron vetoed the deal on the day the UK general election was called, said it understood that the Conservative government did not want to be seen to be doing a deal with the EU during an election period, with an EU concession in return.

Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs said an agreement remains a ‘priority’ and that the republic would ‘continue to work closely with Scotland’ on it, as well as engaging with Westminster.

The Scottish government’s cabinet secretary for external affairs Angus Robertson said it was ‘disappointing’ that it was not possible to implement a resolution before the UK election was called.

“The Scottish government stands ready to re-engage with its Irish counterparts with a view to returning to the issue with the UK government after the election,” he said.

Irish anger at last-minute intervention

Patrick Murphy, CEO of the Irish South and West Fish Producers’ Organisation, told Fishing News: “The entire discussions between our government and the Scottish government has treated this as a fisheries issue only, with input from fishermen involved on both sides.

“In Ireland, we find it absolutely scandalous that a minister in London can unwind years of hard work, and destroy what was a win-win situation for all fishermen involved.

“The Scottish fishing industry has been straightforward and honest with us, and has been realistic about the fact that no one can get everything they want from a deal, and that strong relationships are needed between our sectors on the many issues we face in common.

“The research that the Irish government was to provide in Scottish waters is vital for us all if we are to avoid more zero TACs, and more unfounded attacks on the industry.

“This was very much a fisheries issue, devolved, we feel, quite rightly, to the Scottish government. It involves Irish and Scottish fishermen – no English boats that we are aware of fish at Rockall – and this decision, which is nothing but ignorant political signaling, needs to be exposed for what it is.”

Scots concerns on Rockall stocks

“The Scottish industry has been aware of the desire of the Scottish government to reach agreement over access to Rockall since Brexit placed this on the political agenda,” Mike Park CEO of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Organisation (SWFPA), told Fishing News. “As part of that, the Irish government undertook to carry out much-needed monkfish surveys on behalf of what was then Marine Scotland, which we were very grateful for.

“I’m not aware of the detail of the deal that the Scottish government has said is finalised, before it was vetoed by the UK Foreign Office, which has competence for this.

“The SWFPA has raised previously with Scottish government the concerns of our members about sustainable management of both the squid fishery and the summer haddock fishery, both of which suffered badly under previous access arrangements.

“Whilst the Irish fleet target the squid fishery, mainly to the north of Rockall, for the same reasons some of our own boats do, our experience has been that the fishery benefits from being left alone when catch rates start to drop. The Irish freezer fleet has in the past continued to fish for falling returns, which was a concern about longer-term stability of the stock.

“We’ve had similar concerns with respect to the haddock fishery as well. Pragmatically, we see the argument for a deal with Ireland, but hope that it cements in place measures that protect stocks.”

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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