HC Deb 19 October 1972 vol 843 cc458-62
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Royle)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the very regrettable and serious deterioration in the situation concerning our fishing vessels operating in the waters around Iceland.

As a result of discussions held between my right honourable Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and the Icelandic Foreign Minister in New York on 28th September, we have been able to clarify the positions of the two sides on a possible interim arrangement. There is indeed a wide gap between us but we feel on the British side that it is still worth while holding further discussions in an attempt to bridge the gap. We informed the Icelandic Government accordingly on 11th October.

On 16th October, before any reply had been received, Icelandic gunboats embarked on a course of systematic interference with British vessels. In one case they have fired warning shots and in one case a gunboat attempting to cut the trawl wires of a British vessel collided with it, tearing a hole in the side of the trawler and endangering the lives of the crew. We shall be claiming compensation.

I summoned the Icelandic Ambassador yesterday and formally protested at the Icelandic Government's action. expressed to him the Government's sense of outrage, and that of parliamentary and public opinion, at this resumption of Icelandic harassment. I made it clear that we reserve the right in the event of further interference to take without further notice such measures as we may consider appropriate to protect our vessels. Her Majesty's Ambassador in Reykjavik has spoken in similar terms to the Icelandic Foreign Minister.

We believe that it is in the interest of both Governments that discussions should continue and we have had the full support throughout of the trawler owners, skippers and crews in this. But I must make it plain that British vessels must be free from harassment.

I would emphasise that throughout this unhappy dispute we have for our part acted entirely in accordance with international law and we shall continue to do so.

In August we obtained an interim order from the International Court. Pending the final determination of the proceedings, we are required to observe certain restrictions on our catch in the waters in dispute. The Government of Iceland are required to refrain from enforcing their regulations against British vessels and from interfering or threatening to interfere with them. The same order calls upon both Governments to avoid action capable of aggravating or extending the dispute. British vessels are fishing around Iceland in accordance with that order and the Government will continue to maintain their right so to do.

The British Government and the British industry have behaved with great restraint during this dispute. That restraint is still being exercised. There is, I believe, still the opportunity for an early and amicable negotiated arrangement which will be satisfactory to both parties, pending a definitive settlement. I must warn the Icelandic Government that we expect them to show the same restraint.

Mr. Crosland

I welcome this statement, and endorse both tone and the content. I say only this about the incident between the "Aegir" and the "Aldershot", the only miracle is that it did not happen weeks ago. The trouble is that next time it happens a number of lives will certainly be lost.

I have three questions to ask the Minister. First, will he make it absolutely clear that these incidents are the direct result of instructions given by the Icelandic Government to their gunboats to harass British trawler men who are fishing in their traditional grounds—grounds which form part of the international high seas—and who are authorised to do so, as the Under-Secretary of State said, by the decision of the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman make it unequivocably clear that if this policy of harassment continues it will be an irreparable blow to any prospects of a negotiated settlement and will cer- tainly be followed by full British naval protection; and will he make it clear that such protection will be both determined and effective?

Lastly, however, may I make it clear that no one on this side of the House, any more than anyone inside the Government, wants a confrontation? On the contrary, we all want the dispute to be settled by agreement and not by force.

I end simply by saying that feeling in the fishing ports and amongst trawler-men at the moment is at boiling point. We are on the brink of a confrontation of force, in which lives will certainly be lost, of a kind which should never occur between two civilised nations in this year of grace of 1972. The Government have rightly shown that they are determined to do all they can to withdraw from the brink. It is now up to the Icelandic Government to show that they want to do the same.

Mr. Royle

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) for the remarks he has made in support of the Government's policy. On his first point about harassment taking place as a result of the instructions by the Icelandic Government, I made this very clear to the Icelandic Ambassador when he came to see me yesterday.

As to protection, I must tell the House that naval forces are close at hand. I am sure that the House will accept that operational instructions must be kept confidential. They are, of course, under constant review. We are prepared to order the Royal Navy to go to the aid of our trawlers if necessary. The Government and industry hope that while there are prospects for further negotiations—and this is, I think, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's third point—it will not be necessary to use this force in defence of our shipping, and again I call on the Icelandic Government to match our restraint and sanity.

Mr. James Johnson

The whole House and the people in the fishing ports will be glad to hear the Minister's sterling words. Is he aware that earlier on in Question Time we were delighted by the equally formidable statement made by his right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence on behalf of our naval protection vessels.

As to the Icelandic action, is the Under-Secretary aware that the leaders of this industry on the Humberside are at boiling point and are using such words as "political inflammability" about such action by the Icelandic people, since we consider all waters between 12 and 50 miles of the coastline as international high seas; and this has been confirmed by 14 judges at the Hague? We are delighted to hear his firm guarantee today that if our men in the fishing fleet do get into difficulties our naval forces, which are in close proximity, will go to their aid.

Mr. Royle

I think that I have made the Government's attitude on this quite clear. In fact, since 1st September we have provided two civilian support vessels continuously on station. The details are obviously a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but the support vessel "Othello" was on hand to help in the most recent incidents.

Mr. Wall

I also welcome the strength of my hon. Friend's statement. Is he aware that many people believe that the escalation of these incidents is due to Communist pressure designed to get Iceland out of NATO and that therefore any settlement would be very advantageous not only to Britain and Iceland but to the West as a whole? Will my hon. Friend confirm the Icelandic Prime Minister's statement which seemed to promise a de-escalation of incidents? Will he confirm that the Government are co-ordinating action with West Germany?

Mr. Royle

We are co-ordinating action with the West German Government and are in close touch with them. I welcome what the Prime Minister of Iceland said yesterday in the debate in the Althing, that he wished to continue negotations as long as there is the chance of an honourable settlement. The whole House, will I am sure, welcome that statement. There is no link between the fisheries dispute with Britain and Icelandic membership of NATO. The fact that we are allies as well as friends makes it all the more important that we should settle our differences amicably. In our handling of the issue we do have in mind the defence implications.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Bearing in mind that we still have the winter weather to come and that the subject of prime importance must be the safety of the crews and fishing vessels in Icelandic waters, will the Minister give an assurance that he will discourage any tendency, despite any difficulties involved, for vessels to keep radio silence while working within the 50 mile limit?

Mr. Royle

We are in close touch with the industry on all these matters. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries is in close touch with trawler owners, skippers and crews, and there will be close consultation with them on all these matters during the winter months.

Mr. McNamara

Whilst we agree with the policy adopted by the Government in this dispute, particularly after the recent escalation, is it not now even more urgent that we should have negotiations at ministerial level on this subject and that this should be made our prime objective? When can we hope for a statement on this in the near future, and what statement will be made by the Government's representatives when they meet the action committee tomorrow?

Mr. Royle

There have already been ministerial negotiations earlier in the year. I am sure that the House will understand that the position of the negotiations at the present time must be kept confidential, but all our actions regarding contacts with the Icelandic side will be carried out in close consultation with, and with the agreement of, the industry. This is fundamental to the policies we are pursuing, and we must keep them in accord with the interim order of the International Court. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman at this moment when the ministerial discussions will start again, but we are anxious that they should start as soon as possible.