HL Deb 19 March 1973 vol 340 cc545-8

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps it might be convenient if I took this opportunity to reply to a Private Notice Question asked by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye. He asked for a statement on the action involving the British tug "Statesman" and an Icelandic gunboat.

My Lords, according to a statement issued by the Icelandic Coast Guard, on March 18 the Icelandic gunboat "Odinn" fired two live rounds across the bows of the British vessel "Statesman". The statement alleged that "Statesman" had made repeated attempts to ram the gunboat.

The information we have from "Statesman" is that throughout the day "Odinn" had been harassing a group of British trawlers fishing about 20 to 30 miles off the North Coast of Iceland. Odinn "sailed repeatedly round and between them passing dangerously close to them while they were fishing. "Statesman" was engaged on her normal task of protecting British trawlers against harassment which she was doing to very good effect.

At 17.42 hours gmt "Odinn" fired two live rounds across the bows of "Statesman".

At that time the gunboat was about 400 yards from the nearest trawlers. "Statesman" was about half way between the trawlers and the gunboat and steering a course parallel to the gunboat. At no time did she approach closer than about 200 yards to the gunboat. Another British tug, the "Englishman", was sailing astern of "Statesman".

I am satisfied that there is no foundation for the Icelandic allegation that "Statesman" tried to ram the gunboat. Her instructions are to obey the international rules for the prevention of collisions at sea, and the captain has confirmed that he was doing so.

The Icelandic Government must realise that attempts to interfere with legitimate fishing by British vessels are inherently dangerous. We have repeatedly pointed out to the Icelandic Government the risks involved in such action and deplore most strongly the further aggravation of an already dangerous situation by the use of live ammunition against a British vessel.

Her Majesty's Ambassador in Reykjavik made an immediate oral protest to the Icelandic Foreign Minister last night. He will be making a further formal protest to-day on the basis of the more detailed information which I have now given the House.

As my right honourable friend indicated on March 7, the Royal Navy is standing by to protect British trawlers if necessary. The Government remain ready to resolve this dispute by negotiation. Indeed, a specific proposal for further meetings was put to the Icelandic Government last Saturday and we are awaiting their reply. It is in the interests of the fishing communities of both countries that further aggravation of the situation should be avoided if this is at all possible. But the Icelandic Government must realise that we are not prepared to negotiate under duress.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that no noble Lord in any part of the House would wish to inflame a delicate situation, but is the Minister aware that it is becoming intolerable that our fishermen, fishing perfectly legitimately according to international law, should be subject to ever-increasing pressure from the Icelandic authorities? May I ask the Minister further that when she says that her right honourable friend has said that if necessary the Royal Navy would protect our fishermen, does she not think that the time is very near when that must happen? Finally may I ask her what is the attitude of our own fishing personnel as regards this particular situation?


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that this action is intolerable. We have on station off Iceland two tugs which are doing very well at the moment. My right honourable friend has said that the Navy stands ready. My noble friend asked what is the attitude of the industry. I understand that the industry had a meeting of their Joint Action Committee to-day. and it was decided that the action of "Odinn" in firing live shots should be regarded as unpremeditated and that the industry remains ready, provided the Icelandic coastguard cease their harassment of British trawlers, to support the Government's policy of seeking to resume meaningful negotiations.


My Lords, we on this side of the House share deep disquiet with the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, and Her Majesty's Government, and also deplore this further escalation of a dispute that unfortunately has been festering for far too long. Without in any way implying criticism of Her Majesty's Government, and recognising that it is the Government of Iceland that fails to make use of the International Court procedure that is open to them, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would not feel, in the light of this recent escalation, that this is now a matter in which Ministers of both countries should themselves be directly involved instead of leaving it, as it now appears, at ambassadorial and official level? I do not wish to press the noble Baroness, but I hope that she will feel that this House will give her support if she decided to have further discussions with the appropriate Minister in Iceland.

I am not quite certain what will be the future position of these two tugs. Clearly, they are in a very dangerous position. Two hundred yards is not a very great distance when vessels are manoeuvring at sea and perhaps at considerable speed. Therefore there is a real need for further pressure to be placed upon the Government of Iceland. I noted what those particularly interested have decided and I believe that is right. One should not seek to impose too much pressure by the use of the Navy at this present moment. Clearly, this is a matter which the Government will have to keep in mind, but I hope that the noble Baroness will keep this House informed.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for what he has said in connection with this very difficult and long-drawn-out dispute. The reason why Her Majesty's Ambassador put a formal protest was because he was in Reykjavik and because he had, only last Saturday, put forward specific proposals on our behalf for further meetings. We feel that the best answer to this dispute—and we have always thought so—is to conclude an interim arrangement which will, as we think, fully safeguard the real interests of the fishing industry of both countries and prevent any over-fishing of the area. We hope it will be agreed soon that these talks be resumed.