In Depth

Rockall dispute: why Scotland and Ireland are fighting over the tiny island

The uninhabitable North Atlantic islet is at centre of political row over fishing rights

Scotland and Ireland are at loggerheads over a tiny uninhabitable island off the Scottish west coast, as Irish fishermen defy orders to quit the surrounding waters.

The standoff comes after the Scottish government last week threatened to take action against Irish vessels that the authorities claim are fishing illegally around Rockall. So how did the row begin?

What and where is Rockall?

Rockall is an eroded granite volcane that sits some 230 miles west of the Outer Hebrides and measures only 100ft (30 metres) wide and 70ft (21 metres) high above the sea, says the BBC. Over the years, several attempts have been made by adventurers to live on the tiny island but none have succeeded.

Rockall gives its name to one of the 31 weather areas around the British Isles, familiar from the Shipping Forecast programme on BBC Radio 4.

Who owns Rockall?

The UK claimed sovereignty of Rockall in 1955 – sometimes said to be the last action of British colonialism – and made it part of Scotland in 1972. In 2012, the UK government observed: “No other state has disputed our claim to the islet.”

Scotland claims to have territorial rights over the seas for 12 miles around Rockall.

What does Ireland say?

The Irish government has never claimed sovereignty of the islet but does not acknowledge the UK’s right to exclude Irish fishermen from the waters nearby. According to the BBC, the Rockall fishery is “a multimillion pound” business, with several species of fish including haddock, monkfish and squid inhabiting the waters.

How has the row escalated recently?

The Scottish government wrote to Irish ministers last week warning that “protection vessels” would be deployed to take “enforcement action” against any Irish fishing boats found within a 12-mile radius of Rockall from the weekend onwards, The Herald reports.

John O’Kane, of Foyle Fishermans Co-Operative Society in Co. Donegal, told the BBC that he and fellow Irish fishermen had been “blindsided” by the letter, and insisted they had fished the waters around the islet without incident for 30 years.

How has Ireland responded?

In an attempt to de-escalate the row, Ireland’s deputy leader, Simon Coveney, this week said that he would not be sending naval vessels to defend Irish boats off Rockall, Aberdeen’s The Press and Journal reported. But he added: “Don’t confuse diplomatic language with weakness. We will support Ireland’s fishing boats.”

Meanwhile, industry representative O’Kane claims that the letter sent by Scotland last week amounted to a “political stunt” by the Scottish National Party (SNP).

An editorial in The Irish Times argues that this “sabre-rattling by the Scottish authorities” is surprising, because it goes against First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s “expressed desire” to remain in the EU in compliance with European fishing rules and quotas.

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