Who owns Rockall? A history of disputes over a tiny Atlantic island

Scotland recently warned Ireland over fishing at Rockall, but the outcrop has long made headlines

Archive footage from September 1955 shows the British navy raising the Union Jack on Rockall, thus claiming that the tiny Atlantic island was thusly a "British possession." Video: Reuters


Who owns Rockall? The isolated Atlantic outcrop is in the news after the Scottish government warned Ireland it will send its fisheries patrol vessels to force Irish fishing boats to leave a 12-mile (19km) zone around the tiny disputed island. But Rockall made headlines long before Friday.

On September 2nd, 1861, the coveted patch 418km (260 miles) west of the Co Donegal coast gained attention on page four of The Irish Times after a letter writer predicted its bountiful waters would yield money “surpassing in value the gold discoveries of California or Australia”.

“I now forward an account of the second return here of Captains Rhodes and Gardener from the new fishing ground at Rockall,” wrote J Dawson, MD.

“They have again made a most successful fishing, having caught between thirteen and fourteen tons of codfish each in about six days’ fishing; while the account they give of the vast numbers of great fish that swarm around that insulated rock in the ocean is even more wonderful than before.”

Rockall has long a generated fierce nationalist rivalries since the first British royal navy expedition scrambled ashore in 1810.

Possession of Rockall, 386km (240 miles) west of the Scottish mainland, was for many decades deemed imperative in order to generate claims to the vast tracts of surrounding fisheries and the oil-rich Atlantic seabed.

The British navy annexed the rock in 1955 by hoisting the Union flag and cementing a brass plaque on its storm-washed summit. The 1972 Island of Rockall Act, passed by parliament in Westminster, formally declared it to be part of Inverness-shire, even though the nearest permanently inhabited settlement is 367km (228 miles) away on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Irish Governments have not recognised these claims.

British imperial ambitions were set back by international ratification of the UN convention on the law of the sea (Unclos) in 1982, which states that: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

That decision meant ownership of Rockall, which is the eroded rump of an extinct volcano, would no longer be decisive in the international, diplomatic battle for control of the seabed below.

The rules of Uunclos stipulate that coastal states can register claims to the seabed up to 350 nautical miles (648km) offshore. Claims are ratified by the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf which sits in New York.

Gain control

The UK made its formal submission for the Hatton/Rockall area in 2009, using the deserted island of St Kilda, inhabited until 1930, as its baseline.

Rockall is 167 nautical miles (309km) to the west of St Kilda.

The UK, however, is not the only state eager laying claim to the the Hatton/Rockall basin. Ireland, Iceland and Denmark (on behalf of the Faroes) have also lodged overlapping claims.

Consequently, there have been quadripartite talks shuffling between London, Dublin, Reykjavik and Copenhagen for years in an attempt to agree common underwater borders that would allow exploration to start.

Despite the tortuous negotiations, Rockall retains a symbolic attraction for adventurers. Tom McClean, an SAS veteran, endured 40 days roped to the outcrop in 1985 in order to assert the UK’s claim.

In 1997, Greenpeace protesters lasted for 42 days as part of a protest against oil exploration. Underwater reserves of oil, gas and minerals are increasingly eyed by rival nations eager to boost their reserves.

In the most recent chapter in the history of Rockall, Scottish external affairs minister Fiona Hyslop warned the Irish Government that it will deploy its vessels to protect Scottish fishing rights around Rockall.

The Irish Government contests the Scottish claim to the land, as well as the claim to exclusive fishing rights.

In a statement on Friday, the Irish Government said that its position “has been and remains that the waters around Rockall form part of 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.”

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said it was the longstanding position of the Government is that Irish vessels are entitled to access the waters around Rockall.

He said: “We have never recognised UK sovereignty over Rockall and accordingly we have not recognised a territorial sea around it either. We have tried to work positively with the Scottish authorities and to deal with sensitive issues that flow from it in a spirit of kinship and collaboration. We very much regret that matters have reached this point and intend to do everything possible to achieve a satisfactory resolution.”

Irish people may associate the tiny island with Seán Loftus – who changed his name to Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus – the late TD, former lord mayor of Dublin and life-long environmentalist.

The island also has the distinction of having inspired a rousing republican anthem, Rock on Rockall, by the Wolfe Tones.

The chorus goes: “Oh rock on Rockall, you’ll never fall to Britain’s greedy hands/Or you’ll meet the same resistance that you did in many lands/May the seagulls rise and pluck your eyes and the water crush your shell/And the natural gas will burn your ass and blow you all to hell.”– Additional reporting: Guardian

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