‘Oh the Empire it is finished/No foreign lands to seize/So the greedy eyes of England/Are turning to the seas” .
Those are the opening lines of an Irish Republican song about Rockall but I never thought I’d hear it used it in a Scottish context. To be fair, the recent words of Fiona Hyslop have been far more consensual than the initial bellicose comments coming from the Scottish Government.
Echoing her Irish counterpart she has played up discussion, not sabre rattling.
It’s certainly not been the belligerent actions so beloved by some Brexiteers and certainly far from the gunship diplomacy displayed by Britain towards Iceland during the Cod War. However, its still a position that’s of doubtful legality, and bordering on the inept politically as the First Minister flew in for a meeting with the EU.
For Rockall is a volcanic rock in the Atlantic with Britain and Ireland disputing claims to it, and Denmark and Iceland also expressing an interest in its status. It’s unedifying to say the least and more reminiscent of Chinese expansionism in the South China seas, that’s rightly condemned by all.
I’m currently in the Western Isles. It’s where my father was born and where my grandparents, whom I visited every year, lived.
I drove past their old house that I stayed in every summer and recalled that the next door neighbour had been a St Kilda evacuee.
An elderly spinster, she was rather peculiar, so visits were discouraged by my granny.
I ventured across anyway as she was open handed and children love largesse.
But, as a result, that lonely island outcrop has fascinated me ever since and it’s a huge regret that I’ve still never made it out there.
It’s visible from the islands and I’ve seen it myself on a clear day crossing from Harris to Berneray. It was at least inhabited and capable of sustaining life as was shown before its bleakness and remoteness brought about its demise in the early decades of the last century.
The tales I’ve read in books about its people rowing or sailing the 26 or so miles to the Hebrides are truly awe inspiring. Incredible people and I feel privileged to have met someone from there, even if she left as a small child.
Rockall on the other hand is way over the horizon from anywhere in either Scotland or Ireland. It’s 228 miles from South Uist and 260 miles from the coast of Donegal. Its 167 nautical miles further west than St Kilda. Even the best of binoculars won’t allow you sight.
It was claimed by Britain in 1955 giving some validity to the suggestion as in the song that it was as the empire was crumbling. The Royal Navy placing a brass plaque somehow and somewhere upon it and hoisting up a Union Jack. The 40 days or so later spent on it by an adventurer when I was younger only confirm that its uninhabitable; he was literally tied down to avoid being blown or washed away, and all his supplies were provided from a ship.
The British government were no doubt seeking to protect fishing rights and expand its economic zone. But the UN Convention on the law of the sea adopted in 1982 stipulates that “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”
Notwithstanding that, Britain made its formal claim in 2009, no doubt as the oil and gas reserves came into consideration, together with new technology and rising fuel prices. Of course Scottish fisherman, or more like the few oligarchs who control what remains of the deep sea fleet, will be seeking exclusivity for the 12-mile protected zone.
To be pushing this claim as the First Minister met with Michel Barnier seems strange, though, to say the least. We’ve just had EU elections in which the Scottish Government sang the praises of the EU for bringing peace and dispute resolution to a troubled continent. Why then not seek to have this arbitrated by them or some other international institution, rather than mimic, albeit more politely, British expansionism?
Moreover, given EU support shown to the Republic of Ireland over the Irish border issue, and which was lauded by the SNP, why should the Irish wilt on threats from Scottish Fisheries Protection?
The reality is that the oil and gas are going to have to remain in the sea to avoid humanity’s elimination, not just the evacuation of one island. Fishing stocks require protection from extinction by trawlers wherever they sail from and whoever owns them.
I don’t know to whom Rockall belongs but all my instincts tell me its no ones, just leave it be.