AROUND 260 MILES – or 419km – off the cost of Donegal, sits the small uninhabited island of Rockall, an outcrop that has long a generated fierce nationalist rivalries since the first British royal navy expedition scrambled ashore in 1810. The claim to ownership, however, has been disputed in the decades since by Iceland, Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands) and Ireland – all of which reject the British territorial claim to the island, writes JIM REES
When is a rock an island? And when is an island just a rock? Believe it or not, the answers to these two questions could yet lead to British gunboats attacking Irish fishing trawlers. Realistically, the chances of that happening are minimal, but stranger things have happened and old habits die hard.
What am I talking about?
There is a rock in the North Atlantic ocean. It is just eighty feet wide and fifty feet high. It is the barren remains of an extinct volcano and boasts no grass, no trees, no butterflies, no bees. It does, however, have seabirds and, judging by the amount of white covering on the stone, there are quite a few of them.
This is Rockall and it has been a bone of contention for two hundred years. Now, old claims have resurfaced.
In fact, if you haven’t heard of the latest diplomatic (and not-so-diplomatic) utterances regarding it, I can only assume that you have spent the last two months sitting on that aforementioned rock in perfect isolation.
The latest episode in this long-running soap opera has seen the Scottish parliament threatening to board Irish trawlers if they venture within twelve miles of the lonesome outcrop. Not the actual SMPs themselves, you understand, but royal navy personnel on their behalf.
Twelve miles is the distance a country can claim as territorial waters. So, because Britain claims Rockall as part of its territory, it also lays claim to the twelve miles of sea that surround it.
The first recorded British interest in Rockall goes back to 1810, when the wealth of its fishing shoals was recognised. It wasn’t until fifty years later that renewed interest in Rockall’s rich waters was sparked by further reports of massive hauls.
A century after that, on 18 September 1955, the British government decided that Rockall was theirs by simply landing two marines on it with a flag and a brass plaque.