The very short time frame between the Scottish government’s unexpected ultimatum regarding Irish vessels fishing within 12 miles of Rockall and its threatened enforcement action is not the moment to thrash out extremely complex issues of sovereignty. The issues require calm discussions between the relevant governments and may eventually need to be resolved in European and international courts.
The basic facts are that the UK claimed sovereignty over Rockall in 1955. Ireland has never recognised that sovereignty. Denmark and Iceland also have complex claims relating to the area. The British and Irish governments have over many years developed a modus vivendi as regards the sovereignty issue. The Scottish government has now decided to take action based the UK's contested sovereignty claims.
The Scottish government's sudden escalation of the issue seems strange for four reasons. Firstly, unless and until Scotland becomes an independent country, an objective for which personally I have some sympathy, any sovereignty claims are necessarily British rather than Scottish. While I don't know whether there is any truth in reports that the London government is putting pressure on Scotland to pull back from confrontation, what seems clear is that this was a Scottish initiative. To put it another way, the SNP government, the principal policy of which is to seek independence for Scotland, is forcefully asserting its interpretation of UK rights more strongly than the UK government itself.
This spat will not help and, if handled clumsily, could do significant damage
Secondly, a core plank in the SNP platform is that an independent Scotland would remain part of the European Union, an admirable objective. However, a unilateral measure of this nature, which on the face of it cuts across rights exercised under the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, is precisely how not to win friends and influence people in Europe.
Thirdly, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has carefully built up a justifiable reputation for calm common sense. That reputation will not be helped by this somewhat impulsive action.
Fourthly, Ireland and Scotland are good neighbours and have rightly been deepening their friendship. This spat will not help and, if handled clumsily, could do significant damage. Whatever low-key communications regarding Rockall may have taken place between the two governments over time, it is very surprising that, at a meeting at the highest level between Sturgeon and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as recently as May 27th, the Scottish government’s intentions on this highly sensitive matter were not signalled.
A senior Scottish official has claimed that his government is just implementing the law. That is at best tendentious. A dispute in international law cannot be determined unilaterally by one party. In effect, the Scottish government’s action is about politics rather than the law. Fishing communities everywhere exercise significant political influence. In last year’s British general election, the SNP lost several seats in Scotland, including in constituencies with significant coastal communities. Moreover, the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation (SFF) is claiming credit for the recent initiative. Its spokesman’s warning that Ireland would be “unwise to pick a fight over fishing rights in Scottish waters”, inverts reality and is playground bully stuff.
It might be wise for a government opposed to Brexit to avoid any perception that it is playing a Brexit card
While there have been official denials that the initiative is related to Brexit, it is understood that the Scottish government raised the issue of the 12-mile limit around Rockall just after the Brexit referendum. The SFF has also played up the Brexit dimension. For Brexiteers, the fisheries issue has been totemic, symbolised by the Farage/Geldoff confrontation on the Thames. They perceive it as a win for national sovereignty. However, as on every other issue, it is more complex than the Brexiteers admit, not least because the UK will need to negotiate arrangements to export its fish to the European Union, its largest market.
While Scottish domestic politics are clear enough, its government should remember that Ireland also has its fishing communities, that the European Union will take a legitimate interest in developments and that the complex legal issues are unresolved. It might also be wise for a government opposed to Brexit to avoid any perception that it is playing a Brexit card
The Irish Government is right to respond calmly but firmly to the Scottish government's ultimatum. Our friendship with Scotland is important. It is right to try to dedramatise the situation insofar as we can. The resolution of the issue should be political. If necessary, it should eventually be addressed through the courts while not being prejudged in the meanwhile.
Although there are few areas of law as complex as the law of the sea, someone once said that it is quite simple. It’s the law of the jungle applied to the sea. Scotland on this occasion seems to be taking that a little far. I would humbly suggest that Scotland consider taking advice from its own beautiful anthem. Namely “tae think again”.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU and UK