Wednesday 16 October 2019

Colette Browne: 'Row over Rockall - a tiny eroded volcano in Atlantic - hints at eruption of hostility a no-deal Brexit will set off'

Rockall off the Donegal coast. Photo: PA
Rockall off the Donegal coast. Photo: PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Who better to explain the dispute between the UK and Ireland over an uninhabited rock in the North Atlantic than the Wolfe Tones, who released the rousing 'Rock on, Rockall' in 1973.

"Oh the Empire, it is finished, No foreign lands to seize, So the greedy eye of England is turning towards the seas, Two hundred miles from Donegal there's a place that's called Rockall, And the groping hands of Whitehall are grabbing at its walls," sang the lads, before warning Perfidious Albion that "the seas will not be silent while Britannia grabs the waves, and remember that the Irish will no longer be your slaves, And remember that Britannia well she rules the waves no more, So keep your hands off Rockall, it's Irish to the core".

The British may have erected a plaque on Rockall claiming it for queen and country back in 1955 but that has since washed away. Meanwhile, the Irish claim lives on in perpetuity courtesy of the Wolfe Tones' song.

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However, one can only imagine even the Wolfe Tones would be surprised that, today, it is the "groping hands" of the Scots, and not Whitehall, that are threatening a diplomatic incident over fishing rights around the jagged rock.

In the past week, the language coming from Scottish politicians and fishing organisations has become increasingly rancorous.

This has culminated in a threat to board Irish vessels if they refuse to leave the waters around the disputed crag.

While the Scottish have denied their ratcheting up of language has anything to do with Brexit, a member of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF), Bertie Armstrong, let the cat out of the bag in a comment he gave to the BBC. He said it was important for Scotland to hold firm, and take a hard stance, in preparation for the forthcoming battle over fishing rights that will accompany Brexit.

"Under Brexit we will have sovereignty over UK territorial waters which will include this area. In the whole context of approaching a time when we will be an independent sovereign coastal state, with complete control over all our own waters, then it's time to demonstrate that we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is," he said.

When it comes to fishing rights, the UK's exit from the Common Fisheries Policy could spell disaster for the Irish fishing industry.

This was detailed in stark terms by Assistant Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Dr Cecil Beamish, at an appearance at a Joint Oireachtas Committee back in March.

Dr Beamish noted while the status quo in relation to fishing rights would continue until 2020 under the Withdrawal Agreement - which has now been rejected by the UK parliament on three separate occasions - that a no-deal exit would plunge the industry into chaos.

"Ireland, France, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands all take, on average, between 30pc and 45pc of their landings by volume and between 18.5pc and 50pc by value from UK waters. Of the UK's total landings, only 15pc by volume are caught outside [their own waters].

"On average, 34pc of Irish landings by volume and value came from inside the UK's exclusive economic zone.

"Ireland catches a proportion of all our main commercial quotas, across more than 30 stocks, in UK waters and in some cases, for example mackerel which is our largest fishery, well over 60pc of the quota is taken from UK waters," he said.

The problems for the industry of a no-deal crash-out don't just extend to Irish fishermen being denied entry to UK waters. It would also mean a "likely increase in activity in the fishing grounds in the waters around Ireland" by other EU member states.

"The concern here is an increase in pressure on fish stocks in particular grounds leading to an increase in fish mortality there. This could, in turn, threaten the long-term sustainability of those stocks resulting in lower quotas going forward," explained Dr Beamish.

Given Irish exports of seafood in 2017 amounted to €666m, the loss of access to important fishing grounds would be a calamity. Which is something the Scots are all too aware of.

Even so, it is still difficult to understand why Scottish ministers have adopted such a belligerent attitude over Rockall of late. The Scots, publicly at least, have always been more at odds with Conservative policy on Brexit than with anything the Irish, or other EU member states, have ever said or done.

Their threat to begin boarding Irish vessels would also seem, on the face of it, to be an act of self-sabotage given the country harbours ambitions to rejoin the European Union as an independent state if the UK does leave the EU.

Denying EU fishermen access to waters on which their livelihoods depend, and threatening to detain those fishermen if they don't desist from fishing in waters they have used for generations, would not appear to be the most conciliatory way to start those accession negotiations.

It may be that the ongoing turmoil in Westminster, which has culminated in the resignation of Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and a leadership race in which Brexiteer candidates are in the ascendancy, has prompted the Scottish government to reluctantly accept the prospect of a no-deal exit has now substantially increased - moving from the realms of the implausible to the probable.

In that context, they may have decided to press one of the only advantages that they have, fishing rights around the waters of West Scotland, in the hopes of extracting concessions from the EU.

Regrettably for Irish fishermen, they have now become pawns in this game, with some opting to leave the sea around Rockall for fear of becoming embroiled in an international legal wrangle.

Even if the Government manages to quell this latest threat from the Scots, the latent danger for the industry will not disappear anytime soon.

If a Brexiteer like Boris Johnson, determined to crash out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, becomes prime minister, this spat will escalate and ultimately encompass every area of trade and industry on this island.

The Government is firefighting now to try to extinguish this current dispute, but how will it cope when nearly every other business in the country is under similar pressure?

Perhaps it is apt it is Rockall - an eroded volcano jutting 20m above the sea - that is the scene of the first eruption of hostility to presage the complexity and destructive force that a no-deal Brexit will inevitably entail.

Irish Independent

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