A best-seller in the 1950s was a book called The Mouse That Roared, written as it happens by an Irish-American, Leonard Wibberley. The detail of the plot I’ve long forgotten, but the central action revolved around the notion of a tiny country taking on one of the great superpowers. Hence the title.
There was a touch of that about the incident in Irish waters last Tuesday. Two fishing boats from NE Ireland were detained in Dundalk Bay by the Irish Navy. (Yes, Virginia, the south of Ireland has a navy) and handed over to the gardaí. Like most disputes here, it has a historical background.
Until 2016, there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between north and south known as the Voisinage Agreement, whereby boats from the NE of Ireland were allowed to fish in the south’s waters, and vice versa. However, in 2016, perhaps inspired by the centenary of 1916, some Irish fishermen from the south challenged the legality of this Agreement and the Supreme Court in Dublin, clearly not composed of gentlemen, upheld their objections. That meant boats from the north were no longer free to fish in the south’s waters. On Tuesday, it seems, two of them did, and the law in the form of the Irish Navy stepped in.
Cue outrage from the usual sources. DUP MP Jim Shannon was “appalled”: “The fishing boats are very clearly British fishing boats, they were illegally seized in waters that are disputed, waters that belong to this great nation.” Nigel Dodds declared the action “Quite outrageous” snd added, as only Nigel can, ““When Leo Varadkar talked about soldiers on the Border he didn’t mention the Irish sending warships with 76mm guns”.
There are claims that this proves there’s a hard border already in the Irish Sea, but that’s not what’s upsetting Jim and Nigel and some Tories. It’s that the south of Ireland’s justice system should dare to act independently. Why didn’t they ask Britain’s permission before making a legal ruling? How dare they take legal action against fishermen from the crazy green corner of “this great nation”?
Of course it would be preferable that there was a legal agreement between north and south for freedom to fish in each other’s waters. And I’d expect inside the next couple of years, the problem will be resolved by a legal agreement between the south of Ireland and the UK. Borders between northern fishing waters and southern fishing waters lead to difficulties and anger, so the simple solution is to remove those borders.
Which, come to think about it, would also solve the Brexit back-stop conundrum if practiced on Irish dry land.