The Irish Times view on Rockall dispute

Row over fishing rights hints at kind of difficulties that could follow a no-deal Brexit

Rockall, in the north Atlantic Ocean, pictured from the Air Corps’ Casa CN235 maritime patrol aircraft. File photograph: Sgt Paul Maguire/Irish Air Corps

The sudden outbreak of tension between the Scottish government and Ireland over fishing rights around Rockall is probably just a hint of the kind of difficulties that will inevitably arise if the United Kingdom as a whole leaves the EU without a deal. Fishing rights are a difficult issue at the best of times, as evidenced by the Irish Navy’s arrest of vessels from the North in Carlingford Lough a few months ago, but the sabre rattling by the Scottish authorities is a worrying reminder of how relations can sour very quickly over relatively minor disputes over sovereignty.

One of the welcome signs of improved neighbourly relations between Ireland the UK over the past two decades has been an end to rows over issues such as British army helicopters carrying out surveillance on the wrong side of the Border or minor incursions by military personnel. Such incidents once soured relations and provided propaganda material for those committed to the use of violence in pursuit of their objectives.

The Belfast Agreement and the open Border between the two parts of Ireland transformed the situation and enabled the two countries to develop a warm and close relationship. Brexit has already begun to undermine this positivity and will inevitably change the nature of the relationship once again. And as the Rockall dispute shows, trouble can flare in the most unlikely fashion.

Unnecessary intensification

In emphasising the need for diplomacy, Tánaiste Simon Coveney sought to take the heat out of the confrontation and sensibly ruled out sending Irish Navy vessels to the area. Hopefully the authorities in Edinburgh will take a leaf from his book and pull back from an unnecessary intensification involving the arrest of an Irish vessel.

File photograph of Irish Naval Vessel L.É. Róisín on a routine maritime security operations patrol off Rockall. Photograph:Defence Forces

One of the surprising aspects of the Scottish approach is that it seems to fly in the face of the expressed desire of the country's first minister Nicola Sturgeon to remain in the EU after Brexit. Irish fishermen are in compliance with EU law and fishing quotas, and the unilateral Scottish approach – and the nature of it – will hardly endear the country to the authorities in Brussels.

There is no denying that there has been a long-running international dispute over the status of Rockall. The UK claimed sovereignty back in 1955, but the Irish Government has never recognised that claim. Denmark and Iceland also have claims in the area. Despite their different positions, Britain and Ireland managed to find a way of putting them to one side when it came to the share-out of EU fishing quotas in the area.

It is strange, to put it mildly, that the SNP government whose central policy objective is independence for Scotland, is now forcefully asserting its interpretation of British sovereignty rights in relation to Rockall more strongly than the UK government has ever done. It is another demonstration of the capacity of Brexit to cause harm in the most unexpected of ways.