In April 2017, Marine Scotland (an agency of the Scottish Government) advised the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that it intended to exclude Irish fishing vessels from waters within a 12-mile zone around Rockall. The proposed Scottish action was based on the UK Government’s stance on sovereignty over Rockall and their interpretation of their prerogatives under UK fisheries legislation and the UK’s 1972 Island of Rockall Act, combined with the absence of an explicit provision in Annex 1 of the Common Fisheries Policy Regulation permitting Irish vessels to access territorial waters around Rockall.
Since then, discussions have been ongoing. At political level, the issue was discussed between myself and Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, in September 2018, and this discussion was followed by an exchange of letters. Further discussions have taken place at senior official level this year.
On 31 May, Cabinet Secretary Hyslop wrote to me to indicate that, subject to operational priorities, the Scottish Government intended to deploy vessels to the area one week after the date of the letter (i.e. from 7 June) and intended to take enforcement actions against any vessel, regardless of nationality, that it considered to be fishing illegally. I replied to this letter on 5 June, stating the position of the Irish Government and requesting that the Scottish Government reconsider its approach. I spoke with Cabinet Secretary Hyslop on 6 June and, during the course of this conversation, she maintained the Scottish position.
This is a complex situation. The difference of view between the Irish and Scottish Governments is based on a fundamental question of sovereignty over Rockall, on which Ireland and the UK disagree.
I should make it clear that as we do not accept that the UK enjoys sovereignty over Rockall, we do not accept that a territorial sea exists around Rockall, nor therefore that the Scottish Government is entitled to exclude Irish vessels from the seas around the rock. We understand that the UK takes a different view, but the approach taken by the Irish and British Governments to the definition of maritime boundaries in the past has been to accept that our views differ and to take no account of Rockall for practical purposes.
Dialogue regarding Rockall is continuing between the Irish and Scottish Governments. There have been close contacts at official level over recent days. It has now been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will take place, led by senior officials from both administrations.
The Government has consistently said this matter should be dealt with through diplomacy and agreement. We are hopeful that on this basis the latest tensions can be de-escalated.