The 17.15m-high lump of granite — Rockall — and the fish-rich North Atlantic waters around it, are the cause of trouble yet again. Rockall disputes have been breaking out intermittently for decades, normally between Dublin and London, but sometimes also involving Iceland and Denmark. The latest outbreak of claim and counter-claim about fishing rights is unusual in that the complaint about Irish boats fishing in a 19km zone around Rockall has come not from the UK government but from Edinburgh in the name of Scotland’s semi- autonomous government, which has gone to so far as to threatens “enforcement action” if it continues. Is Scotland’s government really prepared to send its fleet of three fisheries enforcement ships — one of which is small and normally confined to inshore tasks — to arrest Irish boats?
This interruption in international Celtic comradery could be the result of either very fishy business, or the Scottish National Party (SNP) government pushing its luck to make a point yet to become clear.
There has been for some years a legal stalemate over rights to the rock and its waters. The UK claimed Rockall in 1955, and incorporated it as a part of Scotland in 1972. That claim has never been accepted by Ireland, which has, however, not laid a counter-claim. Our boats have simply exercised Ireland’s rights as endowed by the European Union’s common fisheries policy, which gives fleets equal access to EU waters.
Which brings us, regrettably, to Britain’s exit from the union in October. Is this the sort of development Fianna Fáil’s island affairs spokesman had in mind back in 2017 when he warned that a hard Brexit would encourage the UK’s fishing industry’s to push for a complete ban on EU fleets in British waters? Yet if he was near the mark, why has the enforcement threat come not from the UK government in London? That the SNP would dance to the UK’s Brexit tune is highly unlikely, since its objective is to leave the British union and remain a member of the EU and as such operate within the limits of a common fisheries regime that gives Irish boats access to Rockall’s grounds.
Scotland’s government insists it has a “duty and obligation to defend the interests of Scottish fisheries”. Indeed, it has, although that’s a statement of the obvious that will be met with derision in the coastal districts of north Aberdeenshire where the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was a decisive 61%. But it’s impossible to see how that obligation can be met — better late than never — by picking a Rockall fight that Edinburgh cannot win.