Thursday, 13 Aug 2020

John Downing: 'Coveney dials back rhetoric as historic Rockall tug-of-war rears its ugly head'

Almost two decades ago, the beloved balladeer Ronnie Drew cited the rival Wolfe Tones ballad group amid the arms-decommissioning impasse in the Northern Ireland peace process.

“The problem is that the Wolfe Tones won’t decommission their instruments,” the definitive Dubliners songster puckishly said.

Yep, way back in the 1970s and the two ensuing decades, Drew’s folkie arch-rivals, the Tones, had a far stronger nationalist appeal.

And they also sang about this strange issue of Rockall – which amounts to Ireland versus its Celtic neighbour, Scotland.

Hark at this Tones ditty, about the row over who does own that woebegone rock: “When Finn McCool took a sod of grass/ He threw it to the fore/ When he tossed a pebble across the sea/ Where ever did it fall?/ For the sod became the Isle of Man/ Now the pebble’s called Rockall.”

There you are. Write to the UN. I have the address at home in an old diary.

This is a strange row which has periodically recurred.

It turns around whether this lump of stone is closer to Ireland than Scotland.

But it’s totally about rich fishing waters and potential mineral rights in the Rockall zone.

It is a row which crops up only every other decade.

It is sometimes hard to take the issue too seriously – bar the reality that it involves fishing men and women who risk their lives for a livelihood in waters off all these islands in the north Atlantic.

It has huge implications for the fragile economy of coastal communities.

The fishing boats bring income, much of which is spent locally and thus supports more local jobs and incomes.

The latest episode in the row erupted after Scotland threatened action if Irish vessels continued to operate in the zone around Rockall.

The Scottish government said it was defending the interests of its fisheries against “illegal activity” around the uninhabited islet.

The Edinburgh foreign affairs minister, Fiona Hyslop, has threatened “enforcement action” against Irish vessels within 12 miles of Rockall.

However, the Irish Government does not recognise its claim over the long-disputed territory – which is located around 385km from the coast of Scotland, but 370km from Ireland – and Irish fishermen said they have no intention of leaving the disputed waters.

Enter Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who insists that EU fishery grounds and the Common Fishery Policy apply to the area.

“What we don’t accept is that a very small rock constitutes a sovereign territory that can have a 12-mile fishing limit set around it. That is what the Scottish government are claiming and saying,” Mr Coveney said. But the Tánaiste happily dialled down the “cod war-style” rhetoric.

“The less we talk about boardings and potential clashes the better,” the Foreign Affairs Minister said.

“We need to take the heat out of this decision and look for solutions, that’s what diplomacy is about.”

Mr Coveney was in also diplomatic mode yesterday as he insisted that Ireland would work with Boris Johnson or whoever else wins the Conservative Party leadership contest to deliver the best Brexit outcome for Ireland, the UK and the EU.

He also warned that Ireland could not get involved in the Tory leadership contest, which officially began yesterday.

However, the Cork TD put down a marker that the Brexit deal hammered out between outgoing prime mnister Theresa May and Brussels was not open for renegotiation – no matter what Tory leadership challengers may claim.

“It is a negotiation that is closed,” Mr Coveney said.

The Tory leadership battle will see the race whittled down to two candidates, with the Conservative Party membership then voting on who they want.

“It has been going on for a while now,” Mr Coveney joked, in reference to the battle to succeed Mrs May.

“But we are going to stay out of this debate – this is for the Conservative Party and for British politics to decide.

“We have always been very careful during the Brexit negotiations to stay out of internal British debate.”

As he moved back to the topic of Rockall, Mr Coveney also rightly noted that Scotland and Ireland were very close friends and both countries must work to end all this.

This is all about Brexit.

But it’s time Dublin spoke to an Edinburgh administration which is gathering power and influence.

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