The skippers of two Northern Ireland-registered fishing trawlers that were seized in Dundalk Bay have pleaded guilty to breaching fishing regulations.

The two men, 57-year-old Jack Browne and 47-year-old Kevin Trainor who fish out of Kilkeel in Co Down, appeared before Drogheda District Court this morning.

They pleaded guilty to fishing illegally.

The court heard that both men had cooperated fully with the investigation.

Counsel for both men, Karina Kinsella B.L., instructed by Kennedy solicitors, told the court that they were small fishermen who made a modest amount of money from fishing.

She said the detention of their boats in recent days would have a huge impact on them.

Judge Coughlan said it was clear the matter should be dealt with with absolute discretion and he should be as lenient as possible.

He applied the Probation Act on both men and lifted the order to allow their boats to be released immediately.

The men left court after the hearing and when asked how they felt, they said: "No comment." 

The men then travelled back to Clogherhead harbour, where the two fishing boats left the harbour shortly after midday for their home port of Kilkeel.

Captains grateful for 'courtesy and respect'

In a later statement, the two men said they were grateful for the treatment they received.

The statement was issued on their behalf by two of Northern Ireland's fishing industry organisations.

They thanked the district court judge, gardaí, the navy and local fishing community in Clogherhead, who they said treated them professionally and with courtesy and respect at all times.

The two organisations, the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers and the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation, also say they hope the issue that caused the incident will be addressed by legislative changes in the Oireachtas.

The trawlers were detained in Dundalk Bay this week by the LÉ Orla and escorted to Clogherhead harbour.

They were suspected of fishing inside Ireland's six-mile territorial limit.

Gardaí said the vessels, The Boy Joseph and The Amity, were detained under the 2006 Fisheries Act and an order to hold the boats for 48 hours was issued at Dundalk District Court.

There was a long-standing agreement that allowed fishing vessels from Northern Ireland and the Republic mutual rights to operate in each other’s inshore waters.

However, it was struck down by the Irish Supreme Court in 2016. Legislation to reinstate the agreement has yet to pass the Dáil and Seanad.

Varadkar hopes to pass legislation soon

The Taoiseach said he hoped that the legislation could be passed in the next few weeks.

Speaking on LMFM, Leo Varadkar said: "The Government doesn't have a majority in the Dáil or Seanad so it kind of got stuck there.

"I had some good conversations with the opposition parties overnight and I think we can have that law changed, that anomaly corrected, and we can do that in the next couple of weeks.

"But at the same time it would be useful to know from the United Kingdom side that they're not going to pull out of that London convention because there was some suggestions that they might. And it would be unusual if we were to change our law only to find out that the situation on the other side changed.

"I would hope that people won’t blow this out of proportion. The navy and the gardaí were just doing their job and enforcing the law. But the law is wrong and we need to change it."

Yesterday, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds called on the Taoiseach to explain why the boats were "impounded by an Irish Navy warship".

This morning, an Independent Unionist councillor accused the Government of reneging on a promise to resolve difficulties for Northern Ireland fishermen seeking to fish inside Ireland's territorial limit.

Cllr Henry Reilly from Kilkeel, Co Down, who sits on the Newry, Mourne and Down Council said that the impounding of the two boats by what he called "an Irish warship" created suspicion and distrust.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Cllr Reilly said two Kilkeel skippers and their colleagues were out in the Irish Sea "when a massive warship comes up ... and tells them you are British foreigners and not allowed to fish here anymore".

He said southern fishermen have had a very good relationship with fishermen in Clogherhead, and "we don't differentiate between northern and southern fishermen".

Cllr Reilly said that both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste had said they would "die in a ditch rather than compromise the all-Ireland economy or put up borders", but this case showed that was not the case.