Irish fishermen to defy Scotland’s ‘bombshell’ warning on Rockall

Scotland had warned it will take action against Irish vessels fishing around islet

A warning from the Scottish government that it will take action against Irish fishing vessels that fish in the area around Rockall, a disputed island off the Co Donegal coast, came as a "bombshell" to Irish fishermen, the chief executive of Killybegs Fisheries Organisation has said.

Seán O’Donoghue said the organisation’s members are not going to accept the warning and will continue to fish there as normal.

"If there is an enforcement by the Scottish authorities we will rigorously defend it [our fishing] and we expect and we believe that the Irish Government will fully support in that action," Mr O'Donoghue told The Irish Times on Saturday.

In a formal letter of notice, Scottish external affairs minister Fiona Hyslop warned the Irish Government that Scotland will deploy its vessels to protect Scottish fishing rights around Rockall, which is about 418km west of the Donegal coast.


The Irish Government, which contests the Scottish claim on Rockall and also its claim of exclusive fishing rights, has condemned the move.

Minister for Agriculture and the Marine Michael Creed briefed fishing industry representatives, including Mr O'Donoghue, about the impending Scottish action on Friday.

“They [the fishermen] are very disturbed about it and they are very concerned, given that they have traditionally, over the last decade, fished both inside and outside the 12-mile zone in Rockall, without any problem,” Mr O’Donoghue said.

“We never saw that there was an issue. We were absolutely shocked when the Minister announced to us that the Scottish authorities declared that they were going to enforce an exclusive zone around Rockall.

“Obviously we have people there, they were fishing there yesterday and there are some there today, as would be normal practice. They are very concerned about this development. To be perfectly honest it came as a bombshell, they just couldn’t believe it, that this action was being taken by Scottish authorities.”

Mr O’Donoghue said about 10-12 vessels operate in the area, with “quite a number” of those from Co Donegal.

“This is an important part of their income, particularly in relation to haddock and squid – they’re the two main species they would be concentrating on, but there are others as well,” he added.

“It is only during the summer months that you really can exploit it . . . You can only go there in relatively good weather, so at winter time you would rarely see vessels there, maybe just one or two.”

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said it “fully supports” the Scottish government’s stance on Rockall and that Irish vessels “have no legal right to fish within 12 nautical miles”.

"The area is recognised in UK law as part of Scottish territorial waters and hosts multimillion-pound haddock, monkfish and squid fisheries that are hugely important to our fleet," the federation's chief executive, Bernie Armstrong, said in a statement.

“The Scottish government is right to impose compliance, full stop. But at a time when we are moving towards independent coastal state status, it lays down a benchmark for the future.”

Diplomatic dispute

Rockall is a tiny uninhabitable islet in the North Atlantic, whose ownership has been disputed between the State and the UK for decades. However, although the UK has claimed sovereignty over the area, it has never sought to claim the fishing rights now claimed by Scotland.

The diplomatic dispute has been festering for months, with the Scottish government intensifying its complaints to Dublin about what it says is illegal fishing activity by Irish vessels around Rockall.

Last week, Ms Hyslop wrote to the Government to put it on formal notice of the impending enforcement activity, and she spoke to Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Thursday.

The Government strongly rejects the Scottish claims.

In a statement on Friday, the Irish Government said that its position “has been and remains that the waters around Rockall form part of [European] Union waters under the Common Fisheries Policy, to which the principle of equal access for the vessels of all EU member states applies. Irish vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades fishing haddock, squid and other species.”

Sinn Féin TD for Donegal Pearse Doherty said the Scottish intervention could "threaten the livelihood of our fisher community" and lead to vessels, nets and other materials being impounded.

“It needs to be resolved and we’re calling on the Government to escalate diplomatic conversations with the Scottish authorities and with the British authorities to make sure that the interests of our fisher community is defended and they will have the full support of Sinn Féin in doing that,” he said.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times