GIBRALTAR AND ITS eponymous Rock recently became the unlikely front in what’s likely to be a tortuous Brexit battle.
The EU’s mention of the British Overseas Territory in its Brexit charter sent hawkish UK politicians into a furore that led to talk of war with Spain on newspaper front pages.
While such talk is blatantly ridiculous, it does demonstrate how Brexit has ripped up the rulebook of national sovereignty in some disputed areas.
The Irish border is one prominent area but another is Rockall, another rock with a colourful history of claim and counterclaim involving the UK.
While the long-running dispute appeared to have calmed in recent years, there are fears that the UK’s exit from the Common Fisheries Policy could spark a fresh row over fishing rights.
Fianna Fail TD Éamon Ó Cuiv has, for example, warned that the UK could “pull up the drawbridge” and stop Irish fishermen fishing near Rockall.
But what is the story with the fabled Atlantic outcrop?
Where is it?
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 25m wide and 17m high and is actually the remnants of an extinct volcano.
The tiny islet has been the source of an ownership dispute involving the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland. The plateau on which it sits has caused the decades worth of tension.
The dispute is not so much about the ownership of the rock but the potential for oil and gas reserves in the surrounding seabeds.
So do we know who owns it?
Irish folklore has long spoken about Rockall, with one myth describing how it was taken from Ireland by Fionn MacCumhaill.
In reality, the dispute was ramped up in 1955 when two British Royal Marines landed on Rockall and hoisted the British flag in an attempt to annex it. They also cemented a plaque to the side of the rock.
The order to land on Rockall was signed by the Queen Elizabeth II but the UK’s efforts on that occasion were not successful as the other nations continued their claims.
Conferences in Dublin, London, Copenhagen and Reykjavik all sought to end the dispute but they were not successful.
The dispute was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s when it became a legal and political issue in both Ireland and the UK.
In 1972, the UK sought to formally take ownership of Rockall by passing the Island of Rockall Act. It claimed Rockall as part of Scotland, specifically part of Inverness.
Ireland did not recognise the British claim, which read:
As from the date of the passing of this Act, the Island of Rockall (of which possession was formally taken in the name of Her Majesty on 18 September 1955 in pursuance of a Royal Warrant dated 14 September 1955 addressed to the Captain of Her Majesty’s Ship Vidal) shall be incorporated into that part of the United Kingdom known as Scotland and shall form part of the District of Harris in the County of Inverness, and the law of Scotland shall apply accordingly.
Despite not recognising the UK’s sovereignty over Rockall, Ireland has not sought to annex the island either.
The position of successive Irish governments was laid out by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan in a Dail debate last year.
“While Ireland has not recognised British sovereignty over Rockall, it has never sought to claim sovereignty for itself,” Flanagan told Donegal TD Thomas Pringle.
The consistent position of successive Irish governments has been that Rockall and similar rocks and skerries have no significance for establishing legal claims to mineral rights in the adjacent seabed or to fishing rights in the surrounding seas.
In essence, Ireland’s main concern was about ensuring that ownership of Rockall did not translate to rights to rights to nearby resources.
In that sense, the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1982 helped Ireland’s case.
It stated that: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”
In any event, Ireland and the UK agreed in 1988 about the delimitation of areas of the continental shelf between the two countries, stretching out up to 500 nautical miles from their respective coastlines.
Rockall lies outside of the zone claimed by Ireland.
So that’s the end of it right?
No, it’s not. Even though Ireland and the UK came to an agreement over their continental shelf boundary, Iceland and Denmark did not accept the agreement.
It’s meant that the four nations were to submit their claims to UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Ireland, the UK and Denmark have done so but Iceland has not.
The UN cannot consider the case until Iceland submits its position.
Aside from that there’s one other issue that could potentially complicate matters.
As the UN’s rules explicitly apply to “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation”, there have been attempts to prove that Rockall is in fact an island and does not fall into that category.
Back in 1985, former British SAS soldier Tom McClean spent 40 days on Rockall in an attempt to validate it as an island and make it a British territory.
Others have broken that record. Greenpeace activists protesting against exploration spent 42 days on Rockall in 1997 and three years ago in 2014 British explorer Nick Hancock occupied the rock for 45 days.
For the moment though, the status of the Rockall remains that the UK claims is at part of its territory. While Ireland does not accept this claim, neither does it argue that Rockall is Irish.
Not that The Wolfe Tones would agree.