HC Deb 07 March 1973 vol 852 cc410-2
Mr. James Johnson

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement regarding the attacks by Icelandic coastguard vessels upon seven British trawlers, including the "Ross Resolution" and the "Arctic Vandal"' sailing from St. Andrew's Dock Hull and what protest he has made to the Icelandic Government.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

On 5th March, vessels of the Icelandic coastguard cut one or both trawl warps of five British trawlers and damaged one warp of a sixth. On 6th March there were two more such incidents.

This renewal of the interference with British trawlers on their lawful business is deplorable. Her Majesty's Ambassador at Reykjavik delivered an immediate oral protest to the Icelandic Government on 6th March and is today delivering a formal note of protest.

In addition, on 6th March, my noble Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs summoned the Icelandic Ambassador and protested against the renewed activities of the Icelandic coastguard, which are not only dangerous but run counter to the International Court of Justice's interim order of 15th August 1972.

I am today sending a message to the Icelandic Foreign Minister reminding him of my proposal to him of 22nd January that discussions should be resumed, and I am asking him now to set a date for this, since it is obviously intolerable that the present situation should continue. I am also reminding him that the British Government have all along made it clear that we are ready to take whatever action is necessary including the use of the Royal Navy to protect British trawlers.

Mr. Johnson

I accept the moderate attitude which the British Government have adopted so far in an effort to avoid any provocation to Iceland. Is the Secretary of State aware that at least nine Humberside vessels have had their warps cut and that blank shots were fired by the Icelandic flagship "Aegir"? Open warfare is a terrifying experience. What is the Seceretary of State doing to counter this new hard fist within the Icelandic glove?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the need for more tugs to act as buffers against these attacks? Is he aware also that there are only six or seven tugs of this type in the world and that we need to scout about and find them before it is too late? He must know that our fleet is moving on the 15th of this month to the North-West, fishing off the doorstep of Reykjavik.

Lastly, is the Secretary of State aware that angry skippers have hit back and that the cutting gear of the "Aegir" has been confiscated and is now on the way to Hull? Will he ensure that the Ministry of Defence examines this cutting gear thoroughly, because at the moment our men have no deterrent to attacks of this nature? If things get any worse, the Navy will have to intervene.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The answer to this is that the Icelandic Government should re-engage themselves in negotiation. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees that a policy of moderation is right. These incidents are very dangerous when blanks are fired and there is very close proximity to our trawlers by the Iceland gunboats. The tugs are in position. I will look again at the question whether more tugs are available. As the hon. Gentleman says, there are only six or seven of this type of tug in the world and it is not easy to get them. It is more a question of co-ordination of the tugs that are there and securing a better pattern of movement. We must consider all these matters.

In the last resort, I must impress upon the Icelandic Government that it may be necessary to use Her Majesty's Navy.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Does my right hon. Friend realise that many people are getting rather tired of this matter continuing for such a length of time? Leaving the naval aspects to one side, will my right hon. Friend consult our European allies so that a policy of boycott and pressure can be applied to the Icelandic Government with a view to persuading them to conform to civilised standards and not to continue to endanger life as they have in recent weeks?

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

The European Community is in agreement that none of the facilities which are available should be available to Iceland. I do not think that the Community can go further at present. It is necessary to watch the position from day to day, as we are doing with the industry, and decide on the right level of protection.

Mr. Crosland

As the Secretary of State said, this is a deplorable and extremely dangerous escalation of the cod war. It is particularly deplorable in the light of the repeated judgments of the International Court.

The Secretary of State will know that those of us who represent fishing ports have been very restrained about demanding the involvement of the Navy, that it has been our view that the Navy should go in only as a last resort, and that we would like the tugboat solution to succeed. We also think that it has been an almost unanimous view in the fishing ports that the tugboat solution, which had its first success yesterday with the "Aegir", could not succeed as long as there were only one or two tugs present. If this peaceful and moderate attitude is to succeed, the Secretary of State must now plan to bring in at least four or five more tugboats.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I will certainly consider the possibility of increasing the number of tugs. The right hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that the policy of restraint has been right up to now. There is a limit to patience. The Icelandic Government had better know it.