A fishing community on the southern tip of Ireland breathed a sigh of relief this weekend after the Russian government gave in to appeals from local fishermen who said naval drills ordered by Moscow off the Irish coast could endanger their livelihoods.
“I’m shocked, really,” Patrick Murphy, head of the Castletownbere-based Irish South and West Fish Producer’s Organisation, told CNN Saturday evening, shortly after the news of Russia’s change of plan broke. “I didn’t think that little old us … would have an impact on international diplomacy.”
Amid the ongoing crisis on the border with Ukraine, tensions between Russia and the West continue to simmer.
Moscow’s armed forces had planned to run exercises about 150 miles off the Irish coast, in Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone – a part of the Atlantic Irish fishermen say is critical to their livelihoods.
The exercises, would have involved “the use of naval artillery and launching of rockets,” according to a notice issued by Ireland’s Department of Transport last week, which had advised there would be “serious safety risks in the operational area.”
Ahead of the planned drills – originally due to take place in early February – residents of Castletownbere had told CNN they were “worried” and “anxious” about the dangers.
Murphy met the Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov last week to press the fishermen’s case. They initially told the Russians they planned on fishing regardless of the naval activities.
The fish boat, rather than gunboat, diplomacy made headlines around the world – but most suspected efforts to challenge the Russians would be futile.
Filatov initially urged the fishermen to “refrain from any provocative actions which might endanger all involved,” according to a spokesperson for the Russian embassy.
But on Saturday evening Moscow announced the exercises would be moved as “a gesture of good will” after appeals from the Irish government and the fishermen, “with the aim not to hinder fishing activities.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense, welcomed the news in a tweet on Saturday evening.
An Irish government official told CNN Saturday there had been “a feverish 48 hours or so” of negotiations between Dublin and Moscow leading up to the announcement.
But it was in Castletownbere, far from Moscow and from Dublin, where the real celebrations were Saturday night.
Murphy said he believed it was the work of him and other fishermen who raised international awareness of the issue who helped Moscow change its mind.
“You wouldn’t expect the Russian nation to listen to a couple of fishermen,” he said.
“Doesn’t it show that a simple little conversation can change things? It’s huge. The power of words is a lot better than the power of the gun. I’m chuffed.”
Before the announcement, fisherman Alan Carleton told CNN: “We’re worried about what damage this live fire might do to the fish stocks and the marine life … We don’t want anyone doing live fire in our waters. It’s our backyard. It’s where we make our living and our livelihoods.”
Now he describes the Russian saga as “a funny dream.”
Carleton has been fishing these waters for 32 years, heading out to sea with a small crew to hunt for prawns, monkfish, sole and other fish. He has seen his industry decline since he went into the family business as a teenager.
“We’re all human beings and all anyone wants to do is make a living,” he said. “Everyone has mortgages … They have to be paid. Follow the fish and make a living. That’s all we want to do.”