Freed NI fishermen just want to put incident behind them and get back to work
Two Northern Ireland fishermen whose boats were impounded by the Irish navy amid a row over fishing rights have said they just want to put the incident behind them and return to earning a living.
Jack Brown, 57, and 47-year-old Kevin Trainor pleaded guilty to breaching fishing regulations on Friday after their trawlers were seized in Dundalk Bay.
The Northern Ireland-registered vessels, Boy Joseph and Amity, were seized by the Irish navy on Tuesday amid an ongoing dispute over their right to fish in Ireland’s waters under the Voisinage agreement.
After being released by Co Louth District Court and reunited with their boats on Friday afternoon, the men said they want to put the incident behind them and return to fishing.
A statement issued by representative bodies the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation and the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation said: “Our members, owners of MFV AMITY and MFV BOY JOSEPH, are hardworking and respected fishermen, who wish to put this incident behind them and return to their livelihood.
“The men are grateful to the Judge, Gardaí, Irish navy and the local fishing community in Clogherhead, who treated our members at all times professionally, and with courtesy and respect.”
During Friday’s hearing, Judge John Coughlan told the court that the men were people of absolute integrity, but he was bound by a Supreme Court decision which effectively banned Northern Ireland boats from fishing in Irish inshore waters.
The judge asked at one point if he could strike out the charges.
“It’s clear these are people of absolute integrity, and I should be as lenient as possible,” he said.
“This should be dealt with with absolute discretion, but I am bound by the Supreme Court.”
Solicitor for the two men Karina Kinsella said that not being able to access their boats was “affecting them greatly” and that it was “unfortunate that Northern Irish fisherman are missing out” because of the Supreme Court ruling.
Judge Coughlan agreed, and added that he did not feel the men deserved any conviction.
They were given the benefit of the Probation Act and the boats were released early on Friday afternoon and returned to Kilkeel, Co Down, where they are usually based.
The incident came amid an ongoing fishing dispute caused by the demise of an informal deal between the UK and Irish governments.
The Voisinage agreement, which collapsed months after the Brexit referendum, was a reciprocal understanding between the UK and Irish Republic dating back to the mid-1960s which allowed vessels from Northern Ireland to fish in Irish inshore waters (zero to six nautical miles from shore) and vice versa.
But the agreement hit the rocks in late 2016 when a number of Irish fishermen took a case to the state’s Supreme Court, challenging the right of Northern Ireland vessels to fish in their waters.
The court ruled that Voisinage was an informal agreement of insufficient legal standing to formally grant access to foreign-registered boats.
That decision effectively banned Northern Ireland boats from fishing in Irish inshore waters - a move which affected fishermen north of the border who traded in species such as lobsters, crabs, mussels and whelks.
The UK has continued to recognise the Voisinage agreement so Irish vessels remain free to fish inshore waters around Northern Ireland.
The joint statement by the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation and the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation added: “We hope that this incident will now bring renewed focus on the broader Voisinage issue, and look forward to news of legislative changes over the coming days and weeks.”