Newly released documents have shed fresh light on discussions between the Scottish and Irish governments on the issue of fisheries access around Rockall – but an Irish industry leader has taken issue with reports that Scotland made serious efforts to resolve the long-running dispute.
Irish South and West Fish Producers’ Organisation chief executive Patrick Murphy was responding to a report in the Guardian that former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon ‘repeatedly’ tried to resolve the issue because Ireland was seen as a ‘key ally’ for Scotland within the EU.
The Guardian gained access to confidential letters and other ‘heavily redacted documents’ released by the Scottish information commissioner after a ‘three-year transparency dispute’.
The documents show that the Rockall dispute ‘often topped the agenda in her meetings with the successive taoiseachs Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar and talks involving other ministers’, according to its report.
“The documents show the dispute erupted in September 2018 when Fiona Hyslop, then Scotland’s external affairs secretary, wrote to Simon Coveney, then Ireland’s foreign minister, and appeared to accuse the Irish of reneging on an undertaking to stop its trawlers from fishing around Rockall,” the newspaper writes.
“The letter recounts how both sides had an informal agreement in April 2017 to suspend enforcement action against Irish trawlers.
“But ‘regrettably’ Irish vessels were still fishing around Rockall despite ‘a number of meetings and conversations between our respective teams’ and Scottish offers of ‘creative solutions’ to the dispute.”
The documents reveal Fiona Hyslop telling Simon Coveney that the Scottish government had ‘shown considerable patience’ during the preceding 18 months.
Fiona Hyslop said that ‘the continued high level of fishing by Irish vessels in the UK’s territorial sea around Rockall and the lack of progress in our bilateral conversations mean that it is now time for us to take action’.
In May 2019, she warned that if Irish vessels fished within 12 miles of Rockall, they would be intercepted by unarmed fisheries protection vessels.
Ireland disputes both the UK’s claim to Rockall, which was originally made in 1955, and the basis on which the UK claims a 12-mile EEZ around Rockall, arguing that under international law, uninhabitable rocks are not entitled to an EEZ.
The Guardian writes: “Hyslop and Scotland’s rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, were regarded as hawks on this issue and the dispute overshadowed another significant question about Rockall’s future.”
The newspaper claims that if Scotland had gained independence and applied to rejoin the EU, its ministers were ready to negotiate on access to Rockall’s waters as part of a move to rejoin the CFP.
Patrick Murphy told Fishing News that while he had not seen the documentation the newspaper had obtained, ‘we have been told that no way will Scotland relinquish the claim’.
“Scotland didn’t want to leave the EU, but it took full advantage of Brexit to kick Irish boats out of Rockall and forget about their fellow Celts,” he said.
“Are we now being told that Nicola Sturgeon tried to negotiate a solution to help Irish fishermen, and the Irish government said no? Simon Coveney has told us that Ireland is still maintaining its claim to Rockall, and my impression is that Scotland is not trying to resolve it.
“We were told that if an Irish boat was found inside 12 miles of Rockall, we would be banned from all British waters,” he said. “And so we lost that squid fishery as a result.
“Yes, there is still Irish fishing around Rockall – for haddock, hake, monk, megrims – but outside of 12 miles, and not close in to catch squid, which was important for Irish boats for one month of the year.”
Irish South and East Fish Producers’ Organisation chief executive John Lynch said that the ‘whole idea of putting a 12-mile limit on a rock has been challenged’. “Scotland used Brexit to assert its right to Rockall,” he said.
Sinn Féin’s fisheries spokesman Padraig Mac Lochlainn has said that Britain’s move to restrict access to Rockall cost Irish vessels an estimated €7m a year.
“The Irish fishing industry suffered grievously under Brexit, and this is rubbing salt in the wounds,” he said.
Sinn Féin may be ‘much more forceful’ in asserting Irish rights to Rockall if it forms or is part of a new government, Padraig Mac Lochlainn said. The next Irish general election is due to take place by March 2025, and Sinn Féin currently has a significant lead over rival parties in opinion polls.
“We would make one last effort to resolve this [diplomatically] and then go to international arbitration,” he told the Guardian.
A Scottish government spokesperson told the newspaper: “There have been developments in recent months which increase our confidence that arrangements can be agreed under the Scottish-Irish bilateral framework which will be satisfactory for both sides.”
Ireland’s department of foreign affairs said: “The relevant Irish, Scottish and UK authorities continue to engage constructively on this matter, and we hope that a resolution – which is in all of our mutual interests – can be found to the issues involved.”
This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here.
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