The Government will host crunch talks next month as a deal to end a dispute over territorial rights to a massive oil-rich area in the north Atlantic nears completion.

Irish diplomats secured a template for a deal when officials from the Republic of Ireland, Britain, Denmark and Iceland met in Copenhagen last month in the latest round of negotiations on the division of the Rockall basin.

It is understood Iceland is reluctant to agree to the compromise but Britain and Denmark, which claims rights to Rockall through its dependency on the Faroe Islands, have both voiced support.

Negotiations between the four powers on the potential deal will take place in the Dublin on January 8 and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, says he is confident major progress can be made.

'There have certainly been protracted talks, but that is not unusual when one considers the complexity of the issue at hand and the competing interests,' he said.

'However, there was some progress made at the last talks in Copenhagen.

'I believe further progress can be made in Dublin.'

Officially known as the Rockall-Hatton basin, the vast area lies around 200 miles from the north-west of Ireland, the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland and the southern coast of Iceland.

It covers 162,935 sq miles - about five times the size of Ireland - and is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

Rockall island is a virtually inaccessible rock 110 feet across and rises 63 feet out of the Atlantic.

Under a new United Nations treaty, states will be allowed to claim a greater share of the ocean floor if they can show an undisputed direct link with their own land mass, but they must apply before a 2009 closing date.

It is understood a final deal is not likely to be agreed at the Dublin meeting.

'The deadline is May 2009 so we have time on our hands,' Mr Ahern said.

'It is in the interests of Ireland, UK, Denmark and Iceland to come to a deal on the division of the seabed area.

'We have come to outline agreements in relation to other parts of our seabed in the Atlantic.

'There is no reason ultimately why we also can't do a deal on this protracted issue.

'Finding a deal is a significant challenge but the rewards are there for future generations from all four countries,' he said.

The Rockall meetings, which have been going on for five years, are part of wider moves by countries to lay claim to vast areas of the ocean in the search for new reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals.

Each of the four countries is keen to safeguard its rights over the rich seabed surrounding the rock.

The Government has already lodged a joint application, along with France, Spain and the UK, for a 60,000 sq km plot straddling the Celtic Sea and the Bay of Biscay.