Rockall Q&A: What is the dispute about and where is it going?

UK has always claimed sovereignty over islet, but claim is disputed by Ireland

Rockall: there is a serious dispute, and there is a possibility of flashpoints on the high seas. Photograph: Irish Naval Service

Rockall: there is a serious dispute, and there is a possibility of flashpoints on the high seas. Photograph: Irish Naval Service


What is the latest news in the conflict over Rockall?
There has been intensive contact between Irish and Scottish Government officials over recent days and the two administrations will seek to “de-escalate tensions”, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon. In Brussels the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also sought to play down the row, saying she didn’t want to see any fishermen arrested.

So we’re not going to war over Rockall?
That’s very unlikely. But there is a serious dispute, and there is a possibility of flashpoints on the high seas. The Scottish Government has said that it will send fisheries patrol vessels to Rockall to ensure that Irish fishing boats leave the waters around Rockall, and will board them if necessary. The Irish fishermen say they won’t leave. That presents the possibility of incidents at sea. However, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said that the Government will not be sending Irish Government vessels, as advised by Sinn Féin, and the Taoiseach says it’s “not something Ireland and Scotland should fight over”.

Any chance of some skirmishes then?
Very slim. The good news though is that if there is a military conflict, it would be against Scotland rather than the UK as a whole, which might be more of a fair fight. London has apparently been counselling moderation, though so far that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

What is the dispute about?
The UK has always claimed sovereignty over Rockall, though that claim is disputed by Ireland, Iceland and Denmark. However, the dispute has rumbled aimlessly along for years. Recently however the Scottish government has said that it will enforce exclusive fishing rights for Scottish vessels within a 12-mile radius of the tiny islet as Irish boats have intensified what it says is “illegal” fishing there. The Irish – both fishermen and Government – reject the claim, insisting that under EU law they are explicitly permitted to fish around Rockall.

“Our fishermen feel they’ve a legal right to fish on those grounds and that’s what they intend to do,” says John D O’Kane, general manager of the Foyle Fisherman’s Co-operative.

Why have the Scots acted now?
Edinburgh says that there has been an intensification of Irish fishing at Rockall recently, though the Donegal fishermen say they have been fishing there for years.

However, it has also been suggested that the ruling Scottish National Party has been under political pressure from Scottish fishermen upset at its anti-Brexit stance. Many fishermen support leaving the EU as it could also mean leaving the restrictions of the Common Fisheries Policy, but the SNP is strongly anti-Brexit, and has made EU membership a central part of its independence policy. SNP ministers, to be fair, have pooh-poohed this idea.

So where is this going?
Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Churchill said. Officials will continue their exchanges over the coming days, but the crunch will come if the Scottish fisheries protection vessels arrive at Rockall and seek to prevent the Irish boats from fishing. Before that happens, the two Governments will hope to have worked out a process to resolve the row. The Irish view is that could be decided in an international court – either a UK tribunal or the EU Court of Justice.