Thursday, 24 March 2011
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Rockall is a small uninhabitable rock, 25 x 30 metres wide, located approximately 160 nautical miles west of the Scottish islands of St. Kilda and 230 nautical miles to the north-west of Donegal. It marks a point at which the Rockall Bank, part of the very large Hatton-Rockall area of continental shelf extending under the north-east Atlantic Ocean, protrudes 21 metres above sea level. During the 1960s and 1970s the issue of Rockall was a source of legal and political controversy in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom claims sovereignty over Rockall and has sought to formally annex it under its 1972 Island of Rockall Act. While Ireland has not recognised British sovereignty over Rockall, it has never sought to claim sovereignty for itself. 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 and to fishing rights in the surrounding seas.
During the course of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which took place from 1973 to 1982, Ireland worked hard to achieve agreement on this principle. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was adopted at the conclusion of the Conference on 10 December 1982, provides at Article 121, paragraph 3 that: "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." Rockall falls into precisely this category.
In 1988, Ireland and the UK reached agreement on the delimitation of areas of the continental shelf between the two countries, stretching out up to 500 nautical miles from their respective coastlines. This included the division of the Hatton-Rockall area of continental shelf on which Rockall is situated, although under the terms of the Law of the Sea Convention the location of Rockall was irrelevant to the determination of the boundary. According to that determination, Rockall is situated to the north of the boundary agreed with the UK in 1988 and lies outside the zone claimed by Ireland.
However, the claims to the Hatton-Rockall shelf agreed between Ireland and the UK are not accepted by Iceland or Denmark (on behalf of the Faroe Islands), which make their own claims. The four countries have met regularly since 2001 in an effort to resolve the overlapping claims issue, but to date have been unable to reach agreement.
As with any claim to continental shelf lying beyond 200 nautical miles from shore, the UN Convention requires that Ireland and the UK submit their claims for examination to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The 10-year deadline for the making of submissions to the UN Commission expired for Ireland in May 2009. The Government therefore submitted the national claim for this area at the end of March 2009, as did the UK. The Faroe Islands made its submission at the end of last year. Iceland has not yet made a submission.
The Commission's rules of procedure prevent consideration by the Commission of a submission relating to a disputed area without the consent of all the states concerned. Accordingly the purpose of making submissions in accordance with the deadline, as Ireland, the UK and the Faroes have all now done, is to stop the clock on the deadline and preserve each country's legal position. In the meantime the four states will continue to meet at regular intervals and the Government continues to work for the creation of conditions that will permit consideration of Ireland's submission by the Commission as soon as possible.
The State's continental shelf has already been successfully extended beyond 200 nautical miles in the area to the west of the Porcupine Bank where, following consideration by the UN Commission, 39,000 square kilometres of additional seabed has recently been designated under the 1968 Continental Shelf Act. Together with France, Spain and the UK, we have also made a successful submission to the Commission in relation to a large area of seabed in the Celtic Sea and Bay of Biscay and the four countries have recently begun discussions on the division of this area.