There is a "critical timeline" to pass laws that would reinstate an agreement to allow trawlers from the North and South to fish in a six-mile zone between Ireland and the UK, the Minister for Agriculture has warned.
Michael Creed told the Seanad it is "imperative" to proceed as quickly as possible with a bill that will put in to law an arrangement that existed informally between the UK and Ireland since the 1960s but which there is "insufficient provision for" under Irish law according to a Supreme Court ruling in October 2016.
Legislation to allow for the restoration of the Voisinage Agreement was due to be voted on and concluded in the Seanad today.
But Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin joined forces to ensure the final vote on the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill would be deferred to allow consultation with the fishing sector during the Oireachtas recess next week.
Minister Creed told the Seanad that if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal on 29 March "there is a possibility that reinstatement of Voisinage would be much more complex in that context, given that it would be an arrangement of a member state of the EU and a state that would then be a third party".
He said that all the Government was trying to do was to put the agreement on a legislative footing: "It is merely reinstating something that existed up until October 2016, that nobody bothered a jot about up to that point, until the Supreme Court ruled that if was to continue it needed a legislative framework to it," he said.
The Minister said he had regular engagement with the fishing industry and would be happy to meet representatives again in advance of the legislation being finalised.
The UK continues to recognise the Voisinage Agreement so Irish vessels remain free to fish inshore waters around Northern Ireland, but Northern Irish vessels do not have reciprocal rights.
Minister Creed said there was a need for "reciprocity" with the UK. "Deep down it is an uncomfortable position for us to be in for the UK to be pointing the finger and saying we are out of step here, that we are not as generous in terms of access.
He said there could not be a "double standard" where "we say we want to continue access to British waters but we are precious about our own resource and not making it available".
Sinn Féin Senator, Padraig Mac Lochlainn, said all sides support the principle of Irish fishermen being able to access Irish fishing waters, "but it has to be on a level playing field and there has to be a clear legislative footing in both jurisdictions that permits Irish fishermen to fish in Irish waters".
Fianna Fáil supports the Voisinage Agreement in principle, but has argued that it was essential the minister engage with the industry before passing the bill.