BY THE CHIEF MINISTER THE HON PETER CARUANA
ON TUESDAY 13TH OCTOBER 1998
Even though the Government has made its position on the Spanish fishermen's incursions clear from the outset, I would like to take this opportunity to explain to you once again the Government's position and understanding on the matter as it stands today.
There has been much confusion and consequent anger and anxiety sowed mainly by irresponsible and inaccurate statements by the Spanish media and politicians. There has also been a regrettable failure on the British side to clearly rebut some of those statements and to clarify matters, thereby further fuelling our anxieties.
In 1991 the House of Assembly passed the Nature Protection Ordinance. Amongst many other conservation measures, it prohibited the use of all nets and rake fishing in Gibraltar waters. It is clear and obvious to everybody in Gibraltar that, despite the existence of this law, Spanish fishermen regularly fished in Gibraltar waters between 1991 and 1997 using nets and rakes, in breach of the Ordinance.
That did not give rise to acute concern in Gibraltar at any level, whether in the Government of the day or among the general public. Given that the presence of
Spanish fishermen in our waters, in breach of our environmental law is nothing new, it is necessary to establish what exactly has caused the very high level of concern and anxiety that we now all have and share. What has changed?
Well, what has changed, principally, is the attitude of the fishermen. Their attitude since 1997, perhaps unwittingly on their part, has raised issues which are vital and fundamental to us in Gibraltar, namely control, jurisdiction and sovereignty of our waters. They also started to come in greater numbers and using larger boats.
Whereas between 1991 and 1997 fishermen fishing here in breach of the jaw, when approached by the RGP, would obey the RGP's instructions to leave, thus recognising their authority and our law and our control and jurisdiction and thus sovereignty of the waters, in 1997 they begun to defy the RGP
This they did by refusing to obey their instructions to stop fishing by illegal means in our waters, saying that the RGP had no authority, nor our law any validity in those waters, because the waters were Spanish. At that point the matter ceased to be simply one about fishing and good neighbourliness or even about the extent of enforcement of laws, and became a political matter raising issues upon which the UK and Gibraltar cannot make concessions.
And so, from the outset of this matter, the position of the Gibraltar Government has been that there had to be an unconditional return to the status quo before 1997, that is between 1991 (when the law was passed) and 1997.
What does this mean - a return to the status quo between 1991 to 1997? As far as the Gibraltar Government is concerned it means an unconditional return by the Spanish fishermen to their attitude between 1991 to 1997, that is of respect for the authority of the RGP and obedience of their instructions, thus totally eliminating the challenge and threat to our control, jurisdiction and sovereignty of the waters - which is the issue of primary importance to us in this whole matter. The RGP would then be free to enforce and police the Nature Protection Ordinance (as they are with all laws) as they did between 1991 and 1997.
What a return to the status quo cannot be and cannot mean, is any agreement, deal or understanding to authorise or permit any degree of fishing in breach of the law. One thing is for the RGP as a matter of their own judgement and discretion to decide on the level of enforcement of a law - that happens with many laws in Gibraltar. It is quite a different, and unacceptable thing, to purport to authorise breaches of the law by certain citizens or to exempt certain persons from a law. Only the House of Assembly could have done that, in the law itself.
There has been much confusion, claims and counterclaims about whether such an agreement has been entered into by Mr Cook and Sr Matutes. I believe that the Foreign Office lacks the legal and constitutional authority to enter into such an agreement to allow breaches of our law. What is more, His Excellency the Governor said publicly on 23 September 1998 that there can be no agreement or deal to allow infringement of the law. On the several occasions that I have raised this aspect of the matter with the FCO directly, they too have informed me that there can be and has been no such agreement. On the 6 October the Foreign Office issued a statement in which they said that there is no question of the Foreign Secretary making a deal on fisheries or imposing a solution on the Government of Gibraltar. Certainly I can tell you that nobody has tried to impose a solution on me.
I am told that what occurred at the Cook/Matutes meeting is that (since we have called for a return to the status quo) London has outlined to Madrid what was the RGP's pattern of enforcement between 1991 to 1997, ie the way in which the RGP would enforce the law if the fishermen reverted to their own behaviour and attitude between 1991 and 1997. I am told that this position has been accepted by Madrid but that there is no agreement to authorise or permit fishing.
It must therefore be clearly understood that Spanish fishermen remain fully subject to the law and liable to its enforcement against them on each and every occasion that they fish in our waters using methods forbidden by the Ordinance. This is an important distinction which would fully accommodate the policy position of the Gibraltar Government. We have demanded a return to the status quo as the means of defusing the tension. The status quo involves no defiance of our law enforcement agents or of the validity of our laws or of our sovereignty and control of our waters. In this context there can be no distinction between Admiralty waters and the remainder of British territorial waters.
Some people in Gibraltar have expressed the view that there should be 100% enforcement, on a zero tolerance basis, of the Nature Protection Ordinance. This is not the case with many laws in Gibraltar and it is not necessary in this case, just as it was not felt to be necessary between 1991 and 1997. That has not been the case at any time since this law was passed in 1991. It is not the policy of the Government that Gibraltar should now get tougher on fishing than it has been during the last seven years. What we are primarily concerned with here are the political aspects - the jurisdiction and sovereignty aspects.
The manner and extent to which the police enforce and police particular laws is a matter for them. This does not raise fundamental issues of control, jurisdiction and sovereignty of the waters, nor any other vital issue provided that the RGP is allowed to exercise its own policing judgement sensibly and freely, without politically motivated input and without agreed exemptions or exceptions.
In this respect one of the issues that has caused most concern in Gibraltar is the allegation attributed in the Spanish press to a local mayor, that the Governor had been ordered to implement the alleged agreement and that this involved issuing orders to the RGP to permit illegal fishing. I know that His Excellency the Governor takes very seriously his constitutional responsibility and powers, especially those relating to law and order and the police. Only he - and no one else - can issue operational instructions to the police. Certainly it has to be understood that neither the British Embassy in Madrid nor officials in London have any authority whatsoever to bye pass our laws. I understand that His Excellency has not issued any such instructions to the RGP and this was publicly confirmed yesterday by the RGP itself.
Although the Gibraltar Government lacks the constitutional ability to issue or withhold operational instructions to the RGP, since law and order is not a defined domestic matter, I have consistently from the outset advised His Excellency the Governor and the FCO that the Gibraltar Government would be strenuously opposed to the issue of any such instructions.
The Government has stated throughout that it wants to see a return to the position as it has been between 1991 to 1997 before the politically damaging defiance by the fishermen began.
It remains to be seen what occurs during the next few days and weeks. Gibraltar's jurisdiction needs to be asserted and the RGP must continue to be free to enforce the law without curtailment. It remains to be seen whether the Spanish fishermen return to the practice of respect and obedience when the RGP next seek to enforce the law. I have no doubt that the RGP will continue to carry out their duty to the best of their ability. They enjoy the gratitude and full support of the Government and people of Gibraltar in that endeavour, especially at this difficult time.
There is no doubt that the RGP has limited material resources with which to safely challenge the Spanish fishermen if their defiance to the RGP's authority continues. It would not be acceptable for such defiance to go unchallenged indefinitely. That would be prejudicial to British sovereignty and control of the waters. To the extent that the RGP needs additional local resources, the Gibraltar Government, which fully funds the RGP, would be willing to provide the additional funds to enable them to be better equipped and resourced to deal with this activity However, if it comes to that situation, beyond ordinary policing,
HMG has the constitutional obligation to provide the material resources to ensure that British sovereignty of the waters is not brazenly and defiantly violated and that the rule of law in Gibraltar is not brought into disrepute.
The Government is keen that this dispute be resolved. We have no personal grievance against the fishermen. We would want good normal relations, as they have always been at that level, to be restored as soon as possible. But that cannot be at the expense of respect for the validity of our laws and for the authority of our law enforcers, nor at the expense of our sovereignty, jurisdiction and control of the waters. I hope that ordinary fishermen and citizens in Spain will understand this - even if their electioneering local politicians seem determined to wind up public opinion against us. I would therefore urge the Spanish fishermen to end their defiance of our authority over the waters. Once that defiance has ended normality as it has been since 1991 can be restored. The Government shall continue to work to that end.
In the meantime we have to try to rise above the provocation of the Spanish press. We must not raise it to the level of gospel fact and allow ourselves to be wound up and sent into a spin by their every newspaper report. This must give them enormous satisfaction and sense of power and control over us. We must judge issues and events by the facts that occur in practice over time and not by the spin the Spanish press wishes to put on things immediately.
The Government will maintain its firm line on this matter. There can and will be no question of the Government agreeing to allow Spain to make an inroad into the vital issue of control, jurisdiction and sovereignty of the waters. In this context the Government is also concerned about incursions by Spanish Guardia Civil and customs helicopters and boats. Nor will the Government agree to authorised breaches of our laws.
Meanwhile the threats and pressure from Spain against Gibraltar and the personal abuse against me from Spanish politicians and media continues unabated. It will make not a jot of difference to the Government's position, which is influenced only by the correctness of its stand and the importance of the issue to Gibraltar, regardless of those threats, whether they be of long border queues, or the imposition of tariffs on Gibraltar registered cars or the threat of the local mayors to end "good neighbourly relations". Good neighbourly relations, which the Government values, and which we demonstrate day in day out in many issues, have to be based on mutual respect, and not on an instinctive recourse to uncivilised threats of undemocratic and oppressive acts of reprisal by one side against the other. We certainly never have, and will not, take reprisals against ordinary Spanish citizens for the actions of their Government against Gibraltar.