Brexit has put massive strain on Irish-UK relations but could a tiny islet be the rock on which they perish? Caroline O'Doherty looks at the background to the Rockall dispute.
Q. What and where is Rockall?
A. It is a tiny, inhospitable, uninhabited granite island that juts out of the North Atlantic about 300km from Scotland and 423km from Ireland.
By tiny, we mean just over 17m tall and just under 100m in circumference. By inhospitable, we mean it is completely sheer on one side, while the rest climbs steeply with only two flattish spots with room for only a few people to stand — the summit and a ledge around 10m below.
There is also no shelter from the area’s wild storms and no fresh water source. By uninhabited, we mean no disrespect to the seabirds that like to hang out there and catch their breath for a bit but not even they nest there except in rare cases and in very small numbers.
Q. Why is it in the news?
A. The same reason it has been in the news periodically for the last 64 years — a dispute over ownership and the implications for rights to the waters around it, which happen to be a coveted fishing ground, and to the seabed which is believed to be rich in oil, gas and mineral reserves.
More specifically, Britain (via the Scottish parliament) is currently reasserting its ownership claim, which Ireland disputes, and is warning Irish fishermen to pack up their nets and leave the area under threat of arrest.
Q. What happened in 1955 to initiate the dispute?
A. The row had been brewing for decades, sparked initially when the British navy made landfall in 1811, but it really kicked off 64 years ago when the navy laid claim to the island on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II by winching a few men on to it by helicopter to hoist the Union Jack and cement a brass plaque on the summit.
Q. Was Balmoral not a secluded enough get-away for the young queen?
A. This had little to do with royal holidays — it was the Cold War era and there were fears that the Russians might set up a spying operation on the rock.
Q. What was Ireland’s official reaction at the time?
A. Inaction. Ireland didn’t want the Russians spying on the West either and we also didn’t want to cause a fight by dispatching our own helicopter and tub of quick-dry cement.
Besides, while the Brits were claiming a 12-mile exclusion zone around the rock, they were not actually imposing any fishing ban in the area. In any case, in those days before over-fishing, there literally were plenty of other fish in the sea.
Q. Why did the mood change?
A. In 1972, Britain passed the Island of Rockall Act, formally declaring Rockall to be part of Scotland. This was on the eve of Britain joining the EEC so no doubt it was a pre-emptive strike against any diminution of territory that the common fisheries policy would entail. It was also the last act of territorial expansion of the British empire, which had spent the previous decade losing the bulk of its colonies.
Q. How did Ireland react then?
A. Still conservatively. The decision was taken not to make an opposing claim on the island but to assert our contention that Britain had no exclusive rights to the surrounding seas. It was a delicate issue — the North was providing quite enough territorial disputes to be going on with.
An exchange in the Dáil in late 1973 is both illuminating and comic. Foreign affairs minister Garrett FitzGerald is politely but firmly trying to dissuade Michael O’Kennedy from drawing him out on the finer aspects of territorial rights, sovereignty, and jurisdiction by assuring him the issues were being dealt with in the appropriate forum.
Des O’Malley gets stuck in and inquires, somewhat mischievously: “Could you land a helicopter on it?”
FitzGerald replies (incorrectly): “I believe somebody once did.” Says O’Malley:
“We seem to have them to spare nowadays.”
“They can land in unusual placesapparently.” It was the day after the Mountjoy Prison break, when threeIRA men escaped on board a hijacked helicopter which landed in the prison’s exercise yard.
Q. What has happened since?
A. Ireland has refused to recognise Britain’s claim to Rockall while also maintaining that ownership of the island is of no great importance as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”
In other words, Britain can have the rock but not the sea or seabed around it. At least not without making a formal claim and having that claim approved by the UN.
The UK, Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland have all made claims that have yet to be adjudicated upon, as suchnegotiations move incredibly slowly. In the meantime, Ireland and Britain came to a working agreement over sharing the continental shelf that extends far beyond Rockall and its immediate waters.
Although Denmark and Iceland object to that, it seemed to suffice in keeping the peace until a storm of unprecedented force and destructive power hit. Its name: Brexit.
Q. How is Brexit involved?
A. Scotland signalled some months back that it would be enforcing its claimed 12-mile exclusion zone.
It said this was in response to an increase in Irish fishing vessels in the area but, from an Irish perspective, that’s a fisherman’s tale.
The more likely explanation, seen through an Irish porthole, is that Britain is preparing for a fast-approaching untidy exit from the EU and it wants to have the clearest possible delineation of its national boundaries and/or that the ruling Scottish National Party is preparing for another independence push.
The oil and gas issue is a bit of a red herring — climate change plans mean fresh drilling for fossil fuels is unlikely.
Either way, the Scots have now upped the ante, warning that Irish vessels will be escorted out of the area by the navy and detained in port.
Q. And Ireland’s response this time?
A. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said that diplomacy, not threats, is needed to resolve the dispute and he has made reassuring noises about sorting matters out without budging from Ireland’s long-held stance on the issue.
Privately, given the role the barely visible land border has played in the Brexit negotiation shambles, he must be pondering the utterly invisible sea border that now confronts him and wondering if he has woken up on page one of the ultimate book of bad jokes.
Q. Is it possible to visit Rockall to see what all the fuss is about?
A. Some adventure tourism does take place with boats sailing around it.
One travel company will attempt to land a group in May 2020.
The trip will be led by adventurer Nick Hancock, who holds a world record for spending 45 days living out of a plastic pod tethered to the rock in 2014.
They’re already booked out at €1,800 per head, even though there will be no refund if the weather has other ideas — or presumably if entering a war zone invalidates participants’ travel insurance.