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Explainer: Where is Rockall and why has it sparked tensions between the Irish and Scottish governments?

How a small island caused such a big headache.

Rockall island marked in red
Rockall island marked in red
Image: Google maps

AROUND 260 MILES – or 419km – off the cost of Donegal sits the small uninhabited island of Rockall. 

Ownership of the island and the fishing rights in the waters surrounding it have become a hot topic in recent days after the Scottish government said it would apprehend Irish vessels found fishing in Rockall’s waters. 

The island itself is located around 240 miles – or 386km -  from St Kilda’s, an archipelago to the north-west of Scotland. 

Maritime law dictates that fishing rights in the 12 nautical miles surrounding the island, which have been claimed by the UK, belong to Britain. 

This is complicated though by the fact that the ratification of the UN convention on the law of the seas in 1972 states that unless an island is habitable, a state cannot lay claim to the territorial waters around an island. 

The latest move from Scotland has sparked tensions between Edinburgh and Dublin with the Irish government rejecting Scotland’s move to rid the 12 nautical miles around Rockall of Irish vessels despite them fishing there undisturbed for decades. 

The Irish government has thrown its support behind Irish fishing vessels who today continued to fish there today. 

With the potential to sour relations further in the ongoing Brexit saga, TheJournal.ie is taking a look at how a small island in the Atlantic Ocean has caused a huge headache for politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea. 

Who owns Rockall?

Rockall has been claimed by the British and is generally accepted to belong to the UK and, more specifically, Scotland.

In the 1950s, the British navy set out to annex the islet and claim it as part of its own territory in a bid to extend the UK’s shoreline as far into the Atlantic as possible — for fishing and seabed exploration benefits. 

The claim to ownership, however, has been disputed in the decades since by Iceland, Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands) and Ireland – all of which reject the British territorial claim to the island. 

Parliament in Westminster passed legislation in 1972 declaring the island its own, including the 12 nautical miles which surround it.

“The UK’s claim to historical sovereignty over Rockall is a strong one,” UCD professor Richard Collins told TheJournal.ie today. 

“It cannot be definite until someone takes it to court and adjudicates on it, but since the 1950s the UK has asserted sovereignty over it and the Irish haven’t, so if it went to court it would likely side with the UK.”  

An international court would have to rule on the UK’s claim for it to have outright sovereignty over the rock but as there are few official records of other countries rejecting its claim, a court would likely side with the UK.

Collins explained that although Ireland has never accepted the UK’s claim, it also never made a claim to the island itself. And so the UK’s assertion of ownership went largely unchallenged.

Does the UK have rightful ownership to the waters around it? 

A few short years after the UK passed the Island of Rockall Act 1972, the United Nations agreed the Convention on the Law of Seas 1982, which carved up regions of the earth’s waters into Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). 

Along with the 12 nautical miles which surround a country – known as a country’s territorial waters – an exclusive economic zone was allocated to countries extending up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline. 

In Britain’s case, that extended zone includes Rockall island and, as a territory, it would normally include the 12 nautical miles surrounding it.

However, the convention stipulates that the land must be habitable to be an island with but as Rockall island is not habitable, it therefore can be argued that it does not apply in this case.

The convention states: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

So Scotland claims it has the exclusive right to the waters around the island, and while the island but the waters around this fall into the EEZ anyway which, as a result of EU law, is essentially shared amongst member states. 

And what about the EU fisheries regulations?

As it stands the UK is part of the EU and will remain so until Brexit is finalised – either with or without a deal. 

EU common fisheries policy mean the waters outside of the territorial waters of member states are pooled as one common resource when it comes to fishing, with varying quotas introduced to maintain the fish stock across the bloc. 

Therefore, Irish fishing vessels fishing outside the 12 nautical miles are supported by EU law to fish in the EEZ as it stands – but this isn’t really the issue. 

The issue lies with Scotland’s claim that Irish vessels can’t fish in the alleged territorial waters around the island (that’s the 12 nautical miles), something which they have been doing for decades. 

“There a strong argument for the Irish right to fish in these waters which appears to have been accepted to the present day by the UK and specifically Scottish fisheries,” Collins said. 

“From Ireland’s perspective, the argument is that the UK has given the right to fish in it up to now. It’s not clear-cut and it’s tricky but there could be historic rights entitlements here, based on what has been accepted to date.”

So because Ireland has been fishing in the 12 nautical miles around the island for decades, it could have ‘customary rights’ under international law anyway, according to Collins.

What’s so significant about Rockall anyway?

There is a vested interest in this area because of the abundance fish stock and natural resources, with the UK and others wanting to explore the area and extract the minerals. 

The marine environment which surrounds the island is home to a variety of fish, including squid and haddock, and so is a desirable spot for Irish fishing vessels. 

Below the remnants of the extinct volcano that forms the island itself is a seabed which is believed to have an abundance of rich natural minerals and gases below.  

Much marine exploration in the area has been halted as a result of the ongoing disputes between the four countries involved, although tensions have mellowed over the last number of decades. 

So why the heightened tensions now?

The renewed interest in Rockall from the devolved Scottish government came following the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2017, when fisheries became a key issue in the lead up to polling day.

Brexiteers used the fact that EU common fisheries policies allowed member states to fish in waters around the UK as a selling point in the bid to pull Britain out of Europe.

So far, London has been quiet on the issue with Edinburgh alone bidding for exclusive control of Rockall and the water around it.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he was informed of the Scottish parliament’s decision to move to ‘enforcement’ last September, with a promise to give a week’s notice to the Irish government before the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency moves in.

The Irish government is continuing to reject the claim of an exclusive right of the UK to the waters and Irish vessels are still fishing in the area today.

Coveney said: “The longstanding position of the Irish Government is that Irish vessels are entitled to access Rockall’s waters. 

We have never recognised UK sovereignty over Rockall and accordingly we have not recognised a territorial sea around it either.

Meanwhile, Minister for Agriculture and the Marine, Michael Creed said he had “no option but to put our fishing industry on notice of the stated intention of the Scottish government”. 

The challenge ahead is to avoid escalating tensions even further, particularly if the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, with the support of the Royal navy, is to begin boarding Irish vessels under the announced enforcement action. 

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