THE solution to Scotland and Ireland’s Rockall dispute lies in diplomacy, not conflict Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said as the situation continues to cause concern for Irish fishermen following Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s earlier refusal to rule out the arrest of Irish fisherman in the area.
However, Mr Coveney responded quickly to reject the Scottish Government’s position and Irish fishermen returning from the waters surrounding the volcanic outcrop assured the public that there was no animosity with Scottish trawlers over the issue and that many, in fact, were surprised by the issue’s prominence.
“What we don’t accept is that a very small rock constitutes a sovereign territory that can have a 12-mile fishing limit set around it, that is what the Scottish government are claiming and saying,” the Tánaiste said in reaction to the territorial claims by the Scottish Government. “We know how fisheries enforcement works, we do it well here through the Irish Naval Service and the SFPA. We understand how Scotland enforces the fisheries rules, so I think the less we talk about boardings and potential clashes the better. We need to take the heat out of this decision and look for solutions, that’s what diplomacy is about.
“Scotland and Ireland are very close friends and we will work with them to try and bring an end to this, but what we won’t do is change a policy which we have had in place for decades on the back of a threat.”
Despite Mr Coveney’s assurances that Irish fishing policy will not be changed, though, it was still widely feared by Irish fishermen that they would be subject to arrest should they continue to fish the waters around Rockall. However, one of the first Irish trawlers to return from the waters offered some reassurance to his colleagues on other vessels that the situation may have been blown out of proportion and that the progress of Irish boats into the waters would not be impeded.
“Rockall is massively important to us,” Frank McClenaghan, skipper of the Foyle Warrior which fishes out of Greencastle said explaining the importance of Irish access to the waters. “We do a lot of our fishing there every year, and it would be as massive loss to us and many other Irish vessels if we weren’t allowed to go back to fish there.
“The [Irish] Government are saying they’ll back the fishermen, but if I’m arrested it’ll be me [who] has the court case, not the government.”
He continued by noting that both Irish and Scottish boats were ‘surprised’ by the dispute, and accused the SNP of launching a political stunt to win support from pro-Brexit fishermen.
“I’d be very friendly with Scottish fishermen as well, they fish up at Rockall too, and there’s never been an issue, but I think this is… a political stunt because they’ve lost the support of the fishermen and they didn’t realise how far it was going to go,” he said. “This boat has been fishing there for 20 years and we’ve nothing to worry about. As far as we are concerned, by the government and by the EU, we are in the right.”
Bewilderment and uncertainty
The issue has also drawn comment from Glasgow-born Donegal TD Pearse Doherty—who is also Sinn Féin’s finance spokesperson—who called the situation ‘bizarre’ and questioned why such an important issue was not discussed at a higher level before the soundbites from each side reached the public and caused such concern for the fishing community.
“I’m bewildered by the fact that these negotiations were going on for quite a period of time without the knowledge of other Oireachtas members,” Mr Doherty said on RTE. “The fishing community themselves only learned about this on Friday.
“It’s bizarre that this wasn’t raised at the most senior level between the Taoiseach and Nicola Sturgeon when they met last month.”
Now Irish fishermen must face uncertainty as they fish their chosen waters and run the gauntlet of arrest until their right to ply their trade around Rockall is confirmed by the Scottish and British Governments, with Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy noting that Irish vessels could be boarded if they continue to fish Rockall’s waters.
“The normal approach is to invite the captain to cease and desist,” Fergus Ewing MSP said. “If that instruction is obeyed, then there’s no need for further action. If it’s necessary to do more, then the vessel would be boarded and action would be taken in accordance with the law.”
The issue of Rockall’s sovereignty had previously raised its head during the Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland during the 1970s, during which time the Wolfe Tones had a huge Irish hit with their song of the same name about the outcrop, and the dispute took a surreal turn with an offer from singer Brian Warfield to take up residence on the exposed tip of rock (above) in order to claim it for Ireland.
“The British sent over an SAS guy before to live on Rockall so they could say it was inhabited by them,” he said, referring to a 40 day occupation of the islet in 1985 by Irish born former-SAS member Tom McClean in order to affirm British ownership. “We’d be prepared to go up there in a trawler ourselves and claim the rock back for Ireland.
“The British claimed sovereignty over Rockall. Ireland’s response was to refuse to recognise their claim, when what we should have done is make Ireland’s claim over Rockall.”
Whether or not the Wolfe Tones are required to conclude the saga, Irish fishermen remain committed to defending their livelihood in the face of the Scottish threats, with Mr McCleneghan concluding by saying: “I feel we have a right to fish here. I don’t feel the Scottish fisheries patrol or the Scottish Government can ask us to leave so I would refuse to leave.”