190613 irish naval vessel
A file image showing the Irish Naval Vessel LE Roisin on a routine patrol near Rockall, off the northwest coast of Ireland. Image Credit: Irish Naval Service on web

If a crow would bother to fly between Ireland and Iceland, one third of the way there it would be able to rest for a while on Rockall.

Rockall is a granite rock that protrudes from the surface of the northeast Atlantic Ocean, whipped by gales and lashed by seas, rising up some 20 metres and with a circumference of about 60 metres.

Few are aware of existence. But the wise are well aware of its importance.

It was first “claimed” by the United Kingdom in 1955 even though its geographically closer to the coast of Donegal in the Republic of Ireland than any other land mass.

That claim of ownership has never been recognised by the government in Dublin. The Danes, too, who administer the Faroe Islands in the wild neck of the woods, don’t recognise it either.

For the last half-century, the issue of Rockall has been largely forgotten. You see, it’s all part now of the European Union fishing area. But now, all of a sudden, the Scots — not the Brits — are starting to make serious waves about Rockall. So much so that they’ve given formal notice to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, that they have now set a formal 12-mile (19.2 km) exclusion zone. Rockall, the Scots say, is theirs — and as such, the Scottish Nationalist Party government in Edinburgh says that it is entitled to exclude all non-UK fishing vessels from that zone.

The sea there is rich in cold water species such as halibut and cod, drawn to the rock by the smaller marine life that live near coast environments.

But it’s not just fishing rights that are the issue. No, there’s something far more valuable believed to be in the vicinity of Rockall — natural gas deposits and possibly oil itself.

Referendum campaign

It is no coincidence that Edinburgh is suddenly making noises about Rockall. Over the past two weeks, the SNP launched a bill for a second referendum on Scottish independence. During the first referendum campaign almost five years ago, one of the main stumbling points for the SNP with voters came over the vexing question as to how an independent Scotland would be able to fund itself, particularly as its reserves of oil and gas in the North Sea, between it and Norway, are beginning to run on empty.

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And with that in mind, it seems as if some bright spark in the SNP back room looked at a map of northwest Europe and suddenly thought ‘Eureka’.

As far as the government in London is concerned, it’s keeping out of this developing spat between Scotland and Ireland. It has enough on its hands right now between trying to find a new leader of the Conservative party to replace lame-duck Prime Minister Theresa May. And then there’s that ‘B’ word it still must figure out. ‘B’ stands for Brexit. Or Backstop.

The Backstop is that guarantee London gave and that’s written into the Withdrawal Agreement that will ensure the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will remain open and free of security checks.

The odd thing about this whole dispute is that the governments in Dublin and Edinburgh have been working hand-in-hand on Brexit. As one Irish government insider noted, Scotland making its sudden claim about the territorial integrity of Rockall is a bit like a bride jilting the groom and picking up with the best man at the altar. Dublin isn’t impressed.

Irish fishermen say they won’t be leaving the disputed waters, and the Dublin government has assured them they will intervene and give them every support in the event affairs escalate further.

There’s no danger of this turning nasty. Ireland’s Foreign Affair’s Minister and Taniste — Deputy Prime Minister — Simon Coveney, says the Irish navy won’t be sent there. For its part, London won’t be sending any Royal Navy ships either — even if Edinburgh says it will have fishery protection vessels there enforcing the 12-mile limit around Rockall.

There’s a suspicion, too, that the SNP is talking up the Rockall issue to gain favour with voters in fishing communities up and down the West Coast of Scotland.

If indeed the Rockall play is a sudden attempt to cause divisions or a rift with Dublin, the timing seems decidedly off. Given that the Brexit issue is still up in the air, and that the SNP would like to gain re-entry to the bloc should it ever become independent, ticking off the Irish is not a wise move.

As it stands now — and even more so in the event of a hard Brexit — Brussels has committed funds and political support to help the Irish overcome the worst effects of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. It’s not going to let a spurious claim over a rock spur in the middle of nowhere derail things. Sturgeon, her fishing rights, and the claim of Rockall simply doesn’t hold water.