Autonomy campaign criticised for ‘lack of ambition’
Criticism has been levelled against council leaders for failing to aim high in their negotiations with Scottish and Westminster governments for greater island autonomy.
A panel of mainly SIC members – along with Western Isles leader Angus Campbell – were told the Our Islands Our Future campaign “lacked ambition” at an open meeting attended by about 30 people in Mareel last night. Another 80 people followed the discussions on-line.
Political leader Gary Robinson was keen to highlight the benefits, he saw, that the campaign had already brought.
The efforts made by leaders from Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles a year since an initial meeting in Inverness had already proved positive.
He insisted the launch last June had enjoyed “the best possible start” for the collective 70,000-strong islands population. Mr Robinson highlighted last year’s announcement surrounding the so-called Lerwick declaration during the Scottish cabinet’s visit to the isles. Other possibilities which could help island communities lay in relaxing state aid rules, as well as oil and gas community benefits and a transfer of powers from the Crown Estate.
Getting an audience with ministers and government officials, he said, came as a marked difference from 30 years ago when a report into island groups was published by the Montgomery committee in April 1984. He added it took two years for the findings to be debated in parliament, and that was in the early hours of the morning.
But not everyone was convinced enough had been done. Ali Inkster, from Burra, demanded to know why council leaders were not going further in their attempts to have greater powers.
He referred to a recent online article by the BBC, in which Mr Robinson was reported as having “no intention of playing its oil card and pushing for its own independence”.
He berated council leaders, insisting they were “not really asking for much” in their government negotiations.
He slammed the council for failing to keep schools open and cut waste.
“You turn around and say you’re not going to use the ‘oil card’. It’s the only card we’ve got outside of fishing. What exactly are you going to do to make sure they [the governments] keep their word, and why are you not going further?”
SIC convener Malcolm Bell said compromises had to be reached in search of a “broad agreement” between each of the three island areas. But he insisted more could be delivered, and pointed to examples set by Åland and Faroe where very different approaches had been adopted.
Faroe, he said, did it in “one fell swoop” whereas Åland’s autonomy came very differently.
“There are different ways to skin a cat,” he said.
The convener was supported by Mr Robinson, who said Åland was now “in its fourth act of autonomy”.
“We possibly stand more chance of success by going down that route,” the political leader said.
Fellow councillor Peter Campbell, also on the panel, said the council – established by an act of parliament – had taken practical measures in the search for greater autonomy which would achieve more than a “crash, bang, wallop” approach.
Former Shetland autonomy activist John Goodlad welcomed the campaign – but he wanted to be “a peerie bit critical” at the same time.
He said Our Islands Our Future lacked ambition, and criticised the campaign for not seeking legislative powers.
“There’s nothing in here about legislative autonomy. Don’t be unambitious,” he said.
Mr Goodlad also highlighted the strained efforts the Northern Isles had to go through to ensure they were given separate MSPs when the Scottish Parliament was established.
“Never, ever under-estimate how folk in the UK and Scotland just don’t get it.”
Audience member Danus Skene said he was supportive of the Our Islands movement. But he wondered if the islands could not raise more of their own income. Levies on oil throughput – which once helped create Shetland Charitable Trust – or renewables, he said, could be the way forward.
That raised observations from Mr Bell about the SNP government’s drive to draw services under Edinburgh control. Experiences with emergency services had shown the Scottish government, he said, had “centralised like no other”.
Burra man Geordie Pottinger sought assurances the campaign’s achievements would not be discarded by any future governments.
Mr Bell said the electorate was being “bribed with jam tomorrow to vote one side or another” in the independence debate.
But he insisted the referendum result was immaterial in terms of the Our Islands campaign. He said it was important to ensure everything the island groups had achieved was “tied down and protected” in the future.
Panelist George Smith pointed to cross-party support offered to the campaign, insisting it had enjoyed the backing of the Scottish Labour Party.
One question which filtered through the Twitter feed asked how young people were being involved in the campaign, which almost led to an embarrassing silence as the hitherto unspoken truth – that the meeting was dominated by men over a certain age – was laid bare.
Mr Robinson said the campaign was trying to “engage” with the younger generation. He wondered if its leaders needed to be going to other venues.
Mr Bell said he had been to the inaugural meeting of the Shetland Youth Voice, where a lot of “pertinent” points had been raised. He had also been going round schools with MSP Tavish Scott and MSYPs where “really hot topics” had come under discussion.
Michael Stout, also on the panel, said he was “not even going to go near the gender issue”.