HC Deb 08 February 1995 vol 254 cc303-11

1 pm

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

The House will be well aware that I am not an enthusiast of this new method of conducting the business of the House, as I have long believed that the procedures that have evolved over centuries probably have more to commend them than was generally recognised. As matters develop, we shall see that we were not wise to make this change. Nevertheless, it provides an extra opportunity for Back Benchers to raise matters of concern, and this matter has concerned me for a long time.

The House will be aware that over the past year or two, and with increasing frequency of late, we have heard much praise for the Foyle Fisheries Commission in relation to its role as a cross-border body with executive powers. The impression promoted is that the organisation is universally applauded as an example of willing co-operation created in an atmosphere of good will to improve the important salmon and sea trout fishery of the River Foyle catchment area and that it has been a wonderful success.

I regret that I sought only a half-hour debate on this matter. I further regret that I must begin it by giving a thumb-nail sketch of the history of the salmon fishery of the Foyle, as that will take up some of the time available.

There is clear evidence that the salmon fisheries of the Foyle and the Bann have always been viewed as valuable fisheries. Statements are on record to show that, even many centuries ago, salmon were traded far beyond the shores of Ireland.

The House will be aware that what is now County Londonderry was created by King James I of England and VI of Scotland when he was engaged in the plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. What is not so well known is that the new county of Londonderry then formed, with the old county of Coleraine as its geographical base, was defined by listing the "ballyboes", now called "townlands", and allocating them to the various London livery companies, which had to plant English and Scottish settlers and build towns in their portions. I shall not detain the House with details, save one, which is that the salmon fisheries of the Bann and the Foyle were one of the items specifically included.

Of even greater significance is the fact that, to protect the salmon fishery rights granted in the charter that set up the county, the county boundaries included the waters of Lough Foyle up to the high water mark on the Donegal side up to the town of Liffer, now called Lifford. That is a way of saying "the tidal limit" of the lough and river estuary. The fact that the waters of Lough Foyle—a sea lough—are specifically included within the county of Londonderry is unique within the British Isles.

All Irish counties are an English creation. I could go back further and say that they are a Norman creation. Throughout Ireland, and so long as the whole island was under the Crown, no one raised any objection to the county boundary including the waters of Lough Foyle. The question of that boundary assumed importance only when the 26 counties forming the Republic of Ireland broke away from the United Kingdom in 1920. The Irish Republic has consistently laid claim to Lough Foyle, or to at least part of it. The United Kingdom, having a real need to control those waters to gain access to Londonderry port, has so far refused to surrender to that demand.

The demands of the Republic were brought sharply to the attention of the United Kingdom when the IRA sank two coal boats at the mouth of the lough in the 1980s. I could say more about that but I shall desist. The Minister might like to investigate that matter and tell us who paid the compensation for those boats.

After the Republic came into being, some persons in the Republic objected to the Hon. The Irish Society owning the salmon fishery and many ugly scenes ensued as those people began wholesale poaching of the salmon fishery. The owner then decided to seek the protection of its interests in the courts on both sides of the border, but it soon became clear that the courts in the Republic were prepared to adopt a critical attitude towards the society's royal charters, on which its claim was founded. The former secretary of the Foyle Fisheries Commission wrote that The Society discovered that the Irish Free State courts refused to convict in Foyle Fisheries cases brought before them on the grounds that as questions of title were involved, the cases did not come within their jurisdiction. One District Justice in County Donegal was even reported as declaring that the Society had no fishing rights in that area. Given the costs involved in proceeding with a title action, the society contented itself with such protection as could be provided by bailiffs and water keepers. That kept illegal netting within reasonable bounds until the outbreak of war in 1939. The price of salmon immediately rocketed. It was said at the time that one throw of a net could bring in a catch worth £100, which was a considerable sum in 1939–40. By 1947, the river had hundreds of illegal nets, to the point where 60 per cent. of the fishery was under the control of lawbreakers and poachers.

The poachers, however, claimed that they were legally entitled to fish under licences issued by the Molville Board of Conservators in the Irish Republic. I remind the House that, before the island was divided into two states, one board of conservators covered the entire Foyle fisheries area. In 1948, the Dublin High Court declared that the "branch stream", which is the portion of river between an island and the Donegal side of the River Foyle, upstream of Londonderry, was a public fishery. The result of that decision was that the salmon had no protection whatever from the Donegal-based netsmen.

In the light of that, the Stormont Ministry of Agriculture—not Dublin—decided to make a serious effort to save that valuable resource and approached Dublin to see whether a solution could be found. The solution arrived at was the Foyle Fisheries Commission, set up in Bills passed through the legislatures in Belfast and Dublin early in 1952. By that time, more than 600 nets, mainly illegal, were operating in the estuary and all the illegal nets appeared to be operated by persons resident in Donegal.

Interestingly, some of the provisions necessary for the Northern Ireland Foyle fisheries legislation were beyond the competence of the Northern Ireland Parliament and an enabling Bill had to be passed through this House—the Northern Ireland (Foyle Fisheries) Bill—the Second Reading of which was held on 3 December 1951.

Given those facts, it is clear that the Foyle Fisheries Commission was not the consequence of good will by the Government of the Irish Republic but rather the consequence of that Government's refusal to recognise the validity of the royal charters that created county Londonderry. The outcome of that was the lawlessness that erupted on that border river estuary and lough. Indeed, even to this day the Republic steadfastly refuses to accept the boundary of Londonderry, despite accepting the boundary of every other county in Ireland and all the borders that form the counties of Northern Ireland. I wonder what the outcome of this miserable episode would have been if the United Kingdom Government had insisted on the County Londonderry-Donegal boundary, as defined in the charter, instead of not even mentioning it. It was not mentioned in any of the debates that took place in either the Northern Ireland Parliament or in the House at the time. Perhaps the Minister might spend a profitable hour reading those debates. In fact, it would not even take an hour, because those debates were very short and, unfortunately, no one took much interest in them.

The commission consists of four civil servants and a secretary—two of the civil servants are from each jurisdiction. The advisory body is, frankly, dominated by commercial netting interests. The balance of advantage of the commercial exploitation of salmon is significantly in favour of the Republic. The House should remember that the salmon fishery is reputed to be the richest in Europe. The balance in favour of the Republic is evident from the statistics, which show that, in 1994, 138 net licences were issued to people resident in County Donegal and only 32 to people living in Northern Ireland. For statistical purposes, the catch of all the nets is split equally between the Republic and Northern Ireland—that is nonsense, because that gives a false impression as to who reaps the benefit.

On the other hand, most of the rod fishery is in Northern Ireland, as the facts demonstrate. In the Republic, salmon rivers total 49 miles in length, draining 195 square miles. That represents the River Finn system, made up of the Rivers Finn and the Reelan. That system is of interest for a further reason because it is the only one that carries a run of spring salmon in the whole Foyle system. That is quite remarkable and no one can explain it.

The spring fish that run the Finn are not, of course, subject to netting pressure because they are already in the river before the nets start to operate. That means that in Northern Ireland, where there are 440 miles of river, draining 1,118 square miles, it is the stock that runs into those rivers in June, July and August that provides the bulk of the commercial catch. No one in government circles seems too anxious to discuss that. The figures show that the interests of the Republic and Northern Ireland in the fishery are different. The Republic's main interest is in commercial netting and the benefits from that. The interests of Northern Ireland are mainly in local recreational angling, of a high standard, and the possible exploitation of that angling for tourism. The latter will prove rather more difficult than some people imagine because of the question of angling rights on the various rivers and streams, many of which are owned by the Irish Society to this day and leased.

When the reports of the commission are examined, it is clear that the illegal fishing, which was the root cause of the creation of the commission, did not disappear at once. I do not speak of the normal up-river, small-scale poaching, which plagues all salmon rivers to some extent, but of the large-scale netting operations in the estuary and, to some extent in the lough. I have only glanced through some of the commission's reports, but they reveal that, in 1976, many poachers were operating in the Carrigans area in Donegal, to the extent that there was a complete breakdown in law and order.

In 1980, the Carrigans-Lifford area was the source of most of the problems; in 1985, two members of the commission's staff needed hospital treatment after being attacked by masked men in the Lifford area. In 1986, the majority of the problems once again arose in the Strabane-Lifford area. By 1990, the poachers were using CB radio. In 1991, a substantial number of unlawful fishing incidents were recorded. I hope that the House takes note that the problems were Donegal based and all occurred in the same area that gave rise to the problem in the first place—around the branch fishery area on the Donegal side.

I have also looked at the reported legal net catches from 1963 to 1992 and averaged them over five-year periods. The averages show that, in 1963–67, an average of 120,585 fish were caught; in 1968–72, an average of 99,250 fish were caught; in 1973–77, an average of 54,587 fish were caught; in 1978–82, an average of 45,815 fish were caught; in 1983–87, an average of 43,628 fish were caught and in 1987–92, the last year for which I have a report, 46,072 fish were caught. In other words, in the past 20 years, the legal catch has been consistently much less than half of what it was in the period immediately before that. The illegal catch is, of course, unknown and therefore the effect of the total catch on stocks is impossible to determine. I will not explore the problems that that raises for the organisation of the fishery and for deciding how much we can take out of it.

I did not seek the debate to condemn totally the commission's efforts; rather, I have tried to make clear the simple fact that it was created because the Irish Republic behaved abominably from 1920 to 1952. The commission was a mend-and-make-do exercise, which has had a measure of success in constraining poachers. Furthermore, the commission is composed of four civil servants and a secretary—it is not in any sense democratic. Anglers have always complained that their opinions have carried little weight in the decisions taken by the commission. The advisory body has simply been held in derision by the vast majority of anglers in Northern Ireland. That is not surprising, as Mr. Hadoke, a former secretary of the commission, describes it as follows in his brief history of the salmon fisheries of the Foyle: The Council is elected every three years in accordance with the current regulations and comprises representatives of riparian owners, anglers and netsmen. The Council being purely an advisory body does not directly influence the activities of the Commission but it serves the purpose of permitting the users of the fisheries to give their opinions on matters connected with the Fishery. In other contexts we have described that as an opportunity for the locals to let off steam.

Those who have praised that cross-border executive body as an excellent example of what can be accomplished seem to have scant understanding of its origins and how it is structured and controlled. Far from being a model for a cross-border institution, it is a first-rate example of what we should not create. It is a warning to all those who are unwise enough to believe that the Irish Republic acted out of concern for the welfare of the fishery rather than through an attempt to gain a measure of control over what was and still is a United Kingdom asset. It was in its genesis, and in its method of control, a tiny forerunner of what is currently being attempted over a far wider area.

I could say much about the way in which the commission has tried to fulfil its duties in regard to salmon and sea trout. The whole question of other freshwater coarse fish, the eels and the shellfish in the lough could be discussed. The recent changes to the commission could also be considered, but they are not the issues to which I wanted to draw the House's attention today.

On this occasion, I simply wanted to explode the nonsense of using the commission as a model for cross-border executive bodies, for it is the worst possible example.

1.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) on his success in the ballot and on his choice of subject. I doubt whether he has another peer in the House for knowledge of fisheries, in particular salmon fisheries in the Province of Northern Ireland.

The Foyle Fisheries Commission has been in existence since 1952. It was established by corresponding Acts passed by the Northern Ireland Parliament and the Republic of Ireland. Under the terms of the legislation, the commission has responsibility for the management of the fishing rights in Lough Foyle and the tidal waters of the Rivers Foyle and Faughan. It also has responsibility for conservation, protection and improvement of salmon and inland fisheries throughout the rivers of the Foyle catchment and the adjacent sea area from Malin head in County Donegal to Downhill in County Londonderry.

I would contend that, since its inception, the Foyle Fisheries Commission has had a history of considerable achievement. It has provided a commonsense, lasting solution to the protection and management of salmon stocks in a major cross-border catchment. It has operated effectively and has gained acceptance throughout its area of responsibility.

The commission has achieved good runs of salmon into the rivers in recent years and unprecedented levels in the past two seasons. As the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said, it has achieved considerable success against poachers. I refer especially to statistics from 1993, when 640 nets were seized and forfeited, 55 boats were seized and forfeited and 207 successful prosecutions were brought. Recently, a new high-speed patrol vessel was commissioned. It is under construction, and it is hoped that that will be available for the 1995 season.

My noble Friend Baroness Denton of Wakefield wrote to the hon. Member for Londonderry, East on 27 January 1995 about the powers of the Foyle Fisheries Commission and the benefits that have accrued to Northern Ireland as a result of its operations. For the information of the House, I shall outline those powers and refer to some of the benefits.

The commission has powers to make subordinate legislation to regulate management, conservation, protection and improvement of the fisheries of the Foyle area. Subordinate legislation made by the commission requires the approval of, first, the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland and, secondly, the Minister for the Marine in the Republic of Ireland. In consequence, it cannot introduce measures that are unacceptable to the responsible Minister in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

The commission also has power to enforce the provisions of the Foyle Fisheries Acts and the subordinate legislation made under them. In exercise of those powers, the commission may take legal proceedings against a person through the courts of the jurisdiction in which he resides, irrespective of where in the Foyle area an offence is committed.

As for the benefits accruing to Northern Ireland, the commission was established against a background whereby it was impossible to secure proper protection and management of the salmon stocks in the Foyle system, due to jurisdictional considerations.

Those problems were not confined to Lough Foyle or the open sea, where there was no agreement on the international boundary line. They extended to enforcement problems associated with detecting and making people amenable to the law for fishery offences in those significant areas of river that form part of the international boundary.

Mr. William Ross

That is the very matter that has always been in contention: that, under the charters creating the county of Londonderry, it was up to the high-water mark on the Donegal side to the town of Lifford. Has the Minister forgotten that? When the coal boats were sunk at the mouth of the Foyle, the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, permitted the Donegal authorities to salvage them.

Mr. Moss

I confess to being ignorant of the fact that those boats were sunk at the mouth of the Foyle, but no doubt I shall be apprised of that situation fairly soon, if not in the next half hour or so.

I was referring not simply to where the boundary goes in the lough, but to the River Foyle on the way between Londonderry and Strabane, where the international boundary goes down the centre of the river. It was impossible to police fishing, because one could nip to the other side of the river, stick one's rod in and avoid being accused of taking the wrong fish.

Mr. Ross

I have taken the precaution of reading the charter, which is the key and which is at issue in international law between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. It is the charter that sets up the county of Londonderry.

Mr. Moss

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but there has been dispute, as he acknowledged, about the international boundary since the 1920s. He has also argued that it was for the people who established the border at that time to reach a proper accommodation. I do not know whether they forgot to include the boundary out to sea in the lough; all I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that history tells us that there has been dispute about that lough for the past 70-odd years, and at least the Foyle Fisheries Commission has brought about some sense and some organisation to salmon stocks in that lough and in the rivers that flow into it.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I thank the Minister for giving way, but he may not be familiar with all the constitutional background. It was the legislation of the House which, in 1920, defined Northern Ireland as being the "parliamentary counties of Londonderry", and the charter defines those parliamentary boundaries. Therefore, as a Member of the House and a Minister responsible for that region, it is his job to vindicate it—not the job of some people in other times. It is his job today to vindicate the boundary as extending to cover, within Londonderry, the whole of the river and the whole of the estuary.

Will he take account of the main burden of my hon. Friend's speech—that the operation of the charter has favoured netsmen in Donegal rather than the people for whom he should have a responsibility?

Mr. Moss

I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman's second argument in a moment. In answer to his first argument, it seems to me that those people who, in the 1920s, determined the international boundary between the two states either forgot or ignored the boundary out to sea in the lough. I do not know what happened in 1920, but there has been dispute about that boundary and that border ever since. The Foyle Fisheries Commission has brought some semblance of order to an extremely difficult position.

The benefits accruing to Northern Ireland extend to not only enforcement problems but measurement of salmon stocks in the estuary and the river system. Due to the geography of the Foyle system—as the hon. Member for Londonderry, East said—Northern Ireland derives a disproportionate share of the benefits arising from angling exploitation of salmon stocks, as most of the rivers in the Foyle system lie in the Province. Fish-counting stations on the River Mourne and the River Faughan, located upstream of all commercial nets, recorded 27,000 salmon migrating up those rivers in 1994. Allowance is made for fish entering the River Roe, in which I know that the hon. Member for Londonderry, East has a specific interest. In the past, he has invited me to participate in that interest. Whether he will extend the invitation after today I do not know, but he has an interest in the River Roe.

If one adds all those rivers together, one obtains a measure of an angling resource made available to the Province, which has been a result of the operations of the Foyle Fisheries Commission.

I answer to the second argument of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), it is true that 138 of 170 commercial fishing licences issued by the commission in 1994 were issued to fishermen resident in County Donegal. I have inquired into that, because it would appear that there is a striking imbalance in the number of licences issued, but although there is an upper limit on licences—obviously, some control must be exercised—people from the Province of Northern Ireland do not apply for licences at anything like the same rate. There must be a difference of culture and tradition.

Although the commercial catch in 1994 was 38,854 salmon, the number of salmon entering the rivers in the system would have at least equalled, and probably exceeded, that number when allowance is made for the rivers on which counting facilities are not available.

My noble Friend Baroness Denton recently announced the restructuring of the Foyle Fisheries Commission and a significant extension of its functions.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East mentioned the KPMG report and local representation on the commission. He alluded to the advisory council, which has been in existence for some time and which was established by legislation. That is being broadened and strengthened as a result of the report, and an executive committee is to be established in the advisory council to enable it to play a much more meaningful role in the direction of the commission. The executive committee will regularly meet commissioners to discuss the main strategy issues relating to the conservation and development of fisheries in the Foyle area. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see the establishment of that executive committee as a strong move in the direction of local representation.

In her announcement, my noble Friend talked about the committee's remit, which is currently limited to salmon and freshwater fishery matters. Subject to the introduction of the necessary legislative amendments, it will in future have responsibility for a much wider range of functions, particularly in Lough Foyle. They will include the licensing and regulation of shellfish exploitation and marine agriculture, and the regulation of sea fisheries in the lough.

Lough Foyle has considerable potential for shellfish production, and the development of that potential has been hampered by the jurisdictional uncertainties over the lough. As with salmon, placing responsibility for shellfish and marine—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Time is up.