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Sovereignty has “Rock-all” to do with it… or has it? What’s at stake in the recent diplomatic spat between Scotland and Ireland?

Published on July 8, 2019        Author: 

Rockall, the tiny, remote, rocky outcrop in the northeast Atlantic – a ghostly peak of an extinct volcano – has periodically appeared in the news at the centre of a longstanding dispute between the UK and Ireland (as well as, more peripherally, Denmark (Faroe Islands) and Iceland too). This dispute has rarely flared up publicly over recent years, as it has largely been subsumed as part of ongoing, unresolved negotiations surrounding extended continental shelf claims of the four states concerned. However, earlier this month, the Scottish government threatened enforcement action against Irish vessels which it claimed were illegally fishing within Scottish territorial waters surrounding Rockall. Ireland immediately responded to this threat by denying Scotland’s right to take any such action. It seemingly based its position on (i) a rejection of UK sovereignty over the islet and, (ii) the argument that such sovereignty (even if it existed) over uninhabited ‘rocks’ like Rockall was irrelevant for the UK’s claimed maritime entitlement. Although any enforcement action has yet to take place, the underlying diplomatic feud appears not to be going away any time soon. Indeed, following a meeting on Friday 28 June between the Irish Prime Minister (the Taoiseach) and Scottish First Minister, there has been an agreement to intensify discussions in light of the diplomatic impasse.

The Scottish position is perhaps explicable in a pre-Brexit (and pro-independence) political climate, where sovereign rights over natural resources will play a critical part – a theme I briefly return to at the end of this post. However, Ireland’s counterargument appears to be built on a misapprehension of the applicable law, both over territory and associated maritime rights. The real issue would appear to lie in the permissibility of fishing – including potentially acquired customary rights to do so – in the context of EU Common Fisheries Policy rules. In this short post I want to clarify the legal position on sovereignty and associated maritime rights, before turning to the arguably more complicated issue of fishing rights specifically. Before doing so, for those not already familiar, a brief introduction to Rockall is necessary. Read the rest of this entry…