Brexit fishing battle as ownership of tiny rock could flare up UK-Ireland tensions

Micheál Martin discusses Northern Ireland Protocol

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Irish fishermen are to stage a major protest in Dublin city centre to highlight the threat to incomes from Brexit and EU fish quota cuts. The demonstration will take place on Wednesday, and will include boats from Dublin, Louth, Donegal, Wexford, Waterford, Kerry, Cork and other counties. After the rally, fishing representatives will hand deliver a letter outlining the plight of the industry to Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Irish fishing groups warned their livelihoods are now at stake because of quota cutbacks and the impact of the Brexit deal.

A spokesperson said: “We want a renegotiation of (EU) Common Fisheries Policy so that Ireland is allocated a fair share of fish quotas that reflect the contribution of our fishing grounds to the EU.

“The Brexit/TCA agreement between EU and UK was both unfair and unjust and penalised Ireland’s fishing industry. There must be equal burden sharing throughout the EU member states.

“On the issue of enforcement, we submit that penalty points for fisheries offences should only be applied to license holders and skippers following a court conviction.”

Irish fishermen have also demanded that traditional access to fishing grounds around Rockall be reinstated immediately.

The tiny islet could indeed prove to be another tortuous Brexit battle.

The Irish border is one prominent area but another is Rockall – a rock with a colourful history of claim and counterclaim involving the UK.

Rockall is situated in a remote part of the North Atlantic and is about 160 nautical miles west of the Scottish islands of St. Kilda and 230 nautical miles to the north-west of Donegal.

The uninhabited rock is 25 metres wide and 17 metres high and is actually the remnants of an extinct volcano.

It has been the source of an ownership dispute involving the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland.

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The dispute has not been so much about the ownership of the rock but the potential for oil and gas reserves in the surrounding seabeds and the lucrative fishing grounds.

Rockall fishing is reportedly a multi-million-pound industry with a large supply of haddock, monkfish, and squid.

According to a report by IrishCentral last year, Scottish authorities claimed that Rockall was a UK territory and attempted to prevent Irish fishermen from coming within the 12-mile international limit.

The Irish government, on the other hand, contended that the island was not subject to an international boundary as it was simply a large, uninhabitable rock in the middle of the ocean.

Irish claims are backed up by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) 1982.

The law states that “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf”.

Consequently, Irish boats have fished in the area for well over 30 years.

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The Scottish government, in turn, claimed that it has never been legal for other nations to fish within 12 miles of the islet.

The UK first claimed ownership of Rockall in 1955, but Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark have long challenged that ownership.

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney took a firm stance on the issue in June last year and said that Ireland had never recognised British claims to the island.

He said: “We have never recognised UK sovereignty over Rockall and accordingly, we have not recognised a territorial sea around it either. We have tried to work positively with the Scottish authorities and to deal with sensitive issues that flow from it in a spirit of kinship and collaboration.”

Scotland’s Fisheries Minister Fergus Ewing told BBC Scotland at the time: “This is a routine enforcement matter to ensure that illegal activity within the UK’s territorial waters, namely within a radius of 12 miles of the islet of Rockall, ceases.

“We have been engaging with the Irish government for a considerable length of time because we would prefer that this matter is resolved by discussion and negotiation amicably, and that remains the case.”

Scotland and Ireland were loggerheads again over the tiny uninhabitable island earlier this year, as Irish fishermen defied orders to quit the surrounding waters.

The standoff came after the Scottish government threatened to take action against Irish vessels that the authorities claimed were fishing illegally around Rockall.

An editorial in The Irish Times argued that this “sabre-rattling by the Scottish authorities” was surprising, because it went 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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