HC Deb 06 May 1959 vol 605 cc399-402
Mr. Edward Evans

(by Private Notice) asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty whether he will make a statement about the shelling of the British trawler "Arctic Viking" by an Icelandic gunboat outside the 12-mile limit from Iceland.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Charles Ian Orr-Ewing)

On 30th April the British trawler "Arctic Viking" was intercepted by the Icelandic coastguard vessel "Thor" while fishing on the high seas off the south-west coast of Iceland just inside the 12-mile fishery limit claimed by Iceland. The skipper of the "Arctic Viking" reported that the "Thor" had opened fire on the trawler with live shell and had fired a total of 12 rounds, the nearest of which fell three yards from the trawler's bow. The "Thor" followed the "Arctic Viking" for 1 hour 40 minutes in an effort to arrest her.

Her Majesty's destroyer "Contest", which was on protection duty in the area, went to the scene and fired three star shells from a range of 10,000 yards, upon which "Thor" withdrew.

When asked by the captain of "Contest", on the radio, to comment upon the statement of the trawler's skipper that the "Thor's" nearest shell had landed about three yards from the trawler's bow, the captain of the "Thor" claimed that the nearest shot was at least 30 to 50 yards away from the trawler.

Her Majesty's Chargé d'Affaires in Reykjavik has been instructed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to protest to the Icelandic Government against this illegal interference by an Icelandic coastguard vessel with a British trawler on the high seas.

Mr. Evans

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is reported in the Press that the "Arctic Viking" was outside the 12-mile limit? Does he not agree that this is a most flagrant violation of international law which brings much discredit on the Icelandic Government? In view of the placatory attitude of the British trawling industry and of Her Majesty's Government in recent months, having offered every facility for the dispute to be resolved by peaceful means, is it not time that we took stronger measures to enforce our rights and to protect our fleets in these waters?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I would not want to enter into an argument whether this occurred just inside or just outside the 12-mile limit, because that is a limit which we do not recognise. It has been claimed only by the Icelandic Government. I agree that incidents of this kind are very undesirable indeed and very dangerous, and I hope that the very firm Note which is due to be delivered today to the Icelandic Government will make it clear that Her Majesty's Government take a very stern view of this incident.

Mr. C. R. Hobson

Why not take some action in the matter?

Dr. Bennett

Does my hon. Friend know whether the shell which is alleged to have hit the sea three or 30 yards from the trawler was a live or a practice shell? If it was a live shell it would be equally lethal at that range.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

It is not possible for me to say whether it was a live or a practice shell. It is true that practice shells have been fired in the past and that an Icelandic gunboat skipper confessed on one occasion that live shells were fired. So it is possible that this was live, but it could also have been a practice shell. I cannot say which it was.

Mr. G. Brown

As this incident involves something near hostilities between two members of N.A.T.O., have the Government any proposal to bring this situation to an end?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think that I am veering to part of the policy which is really the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary rather than of myself. Her Majesty's Government stand by the statement which they made on 1st September, 1958, that they were only too anxious to get a settlement of this very difficult problem. We would still like to get a settlement and reduce the dangers which our fishermen meet and the tasks which the Royal Navy has to undertake.

Mr. Doughty

Will the Government consider, if these attacks on our trawlers continue, forbidding the landing of fish in this country from Icelandic trawlers?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think that these matters will have to be considered and should not be dealt with in answer to supplementary questions.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does the Minister realise that this regrettable incident is part of a much larger question and indicates the failure of Her Majesty's Government to summon a conference to settle these outstanding questions of territorial limits? Will the Minister, in conjunction with the Prime Minister, take steps to summon such a conference so that this sort of unfortunate incident may not happen again?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

That is not true. Her Majesty's Government have gone out of their way to try to be conciliatory, though firm, and to get a settlement. There is to be an international conference on this matter next year, but we should like to get a settlement before then if Iceland is prepared to come to some such arrangement.

Mr. Awbery

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this incident has arisen out of the failure of the Icelandic and British Governments to meet and come to an agreement on the question of territorial waters? The Icelandic Government believe that they have the right to fix a 12-mile limit, while we believe that it should be a 3-mile limit. Cannot the two Governments get together and come to a temporary arrangement in this matter until the international conference next April? It will not meet until next April, and this dispute will go on intermittently until the conference meets.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I can only repeat that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is most anxious to come to an agreement on this matter. But agreement has to be on two sides, and we are hoping that the Icelandic Government will move in our direction.

Dame Florence Horsbrugh

Is it not a fact that our Government were anxious to have the conference earlier and that it was only when discussions took place that it was found that other Governments were not willing to have the conference this year, but wished it to be deferred until next year?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think that that is a question for the Foreign Secretary rather than for the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty.

Mr. Edward Evans

Will the hon. Gentleman clear up the position with regard to the proposed 6-mile limit? Have negotiations been started, or are they in progress, on the compromise solution that has been suggested of a 6-mile limit, following the recommendation of the Americans last year?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Faroese Agreement which was recently made on those lines. Certainly, we are prepared to discuss these matters. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would put a Question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. This is really outside my responsibility at the Admiralty.