According to a statement issued by the Icelandic Government, on 18th March 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 lives 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 col- lisions 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 today on the basis of the more detailed information which I have now given the House.
As my right hon. Friend indicated on 7th March, 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.
While welcoming that detailed statement may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would agree that we are winning the cod war because our fishermen have not been defeated by the winter weather as the Icelandic Government expected? While wishing to continue negotiations, would my right hon. Friend confirm that no further concession beyond the 25 per cent. cut will be made and will he consider making a naval demonstration inside the 50 miles to show the Icelandic Government what will happen if this harassment continues before any further talks start?
I would accept my hon. Friend's statement that the fishing fleet have proved themselves and have not been deflected by the harassment. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept it if I say that I would rather not announce at this stage, or indeed at any stage, what naval operations might be taken or the circumstances in which they would be taken.
The trouble is that every time one of these incidents occurs, particularly when they become more reckless and dangerous, tempers become inflamed and that makes it absolutely certain that the next incident will be worse. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if these incidents were to continue in this way, then the moment would come when the British Navy would have to give protection to British trawlermen fishing in their traditional grounds with the full approval of the International Court of Justice?
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman referred, rightly, to negotiations. May I put this to him? Is not the situation now so urgent that we cannot go on with the traditional and leisurely exchange of messages through ambassadors? Has not the moment arrived now when Ministers themselves must take charge of this and arrange a ministerial meeting as soon as possible either in Reykjavik or in London?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my noble Friend Lady Tweedsmuir was in Reykjavik not long ago, and we have now made a proposal for resuming negotiations which would involve no doubt, at the first stage official talks, and at a very early stage ministerial talks. We are now awaiting a reply from the Icelandic Government. What has happened since that proposal was made last Saturday does not make things easier but, as I said, we cannot negotiate under duress, and the Royal Navy remains ready to help our trawlermen if this should be necessary.
The Minister mentioned the deep desire of all concerned inside and outside the industry to have negotiations, and we must not forget the efforts of the two ambassadors, Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Sigurdsson. But could he tell the House on what basis the Icelanders wish to negotiate? We were catching 200,000 tons, and would come down to 170,000 tons. I gather that they will not negotiate on that basis or any basis which is more than, say, 130,000 tons. Is this the position—that we cannot have ministerial negotiations because the Icelanders are sticking at this point? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman this: could not a permanent pledge be given to the industry that it is to have naval protection and that the Government will give this with naval forces outside the 50 mile limit?
We have already made it clear that the navy would be ready to protect our trawlers if this were necessary. When it comes to negotiations, both sides must, clearly, enter the negotiating conference without preconceived ideas and ready to discuss a reasonable settlement. Therefore, preconceived ideas on one side or the other would be mistaken.
May I remind my right hon. Friend that the Foreign Secretary, on 7th March in this House, made a very firm statement saying that our patience could be exhausted? Does my right hon. Friend realise that many of our constituents are very near the brink of that patience being exhausted?
Will the Government remind everyone that the International Court of Justice at The Hague has already said that this dispute is acceptable to the court and that it could come before it? In the circumstances, will the Government also remind everyone that we have everything to gain in the long run by observing the restraints of international law?
May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that the Isle of Arran is being harassed by British trawlermen and would he draw this situation to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to see that the law is enforced?
My hon. Friend will recognise that this matter is just slightly outside the remit of this Question, but I will look into what he said. I only hope that it does not mean that Arran and Reykjavik have made common cause.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what is causing particular resentment on Humberside is the allegation that it was the "Statesman" that was endangering the shipping in the area and not the Icelandic gunboat in question? Will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue at all times to make sure that there is sufficient protection for our fleet, if necessary by sending in more tugs as and when they become available, and not rise to this occasion when it seems as if the Icelandic Government are deliberately and continually provoking incidents to try to put us in the position of aggressor rather than the other way round?
I am satisfied that the "Statesman" was observing the proper rules. What I am concerned about is the firing of live rounds in bad light and in a roughish sea, when it is not easy to control the trajectory of the missile, and serious damage could be done to life or property. We were lucky enough not to experience it.