By LOUISE THOMASON
The councillor who described Shetland’s livestock co-operative as a “Mickey Mouse organisation” during a council meeting on the future of the organisation apologised this week for his remarks, which he admitted had been “entirely inappropriate”.
Allison Duncan also said sorry for critical comments made about officials from the group behind plans for a new abattoir in Scalloway at a public meeting in the village in December.
The councillor’s decision to withdraw his statements came after a meeting with the heads of both organisations brokered by fellow councillor Allan Wishart. All four men said they hoped a line was now drawn under the matter.
A contrite councillor Duncan said: “I am passionate about agriculture in Shetland and I do have very strong views about it. However I accept that in the heat of the moment I used a choice of words that were entirely inappropriate and for that I apologise without reservation to all those who were offended.”
Both Shetland Livestock and Marketing Group chairman Ronnie Eunson and Shetland Abattoir Co-operative Ltd chairman David Nicolson accepted the apology.
Mr Nicolson, who had recently written an open letter of complaint to the convener of Shetland Islands Council concerning Mr Duncan’s statements, said that as a constituent of councillor Duncan and as chairman of SACL he was pleased to accept the apology.
“We had a very useful discussion with Mr Duncan and I am happy with the outcome. We shook hands after the meeting and as far as I am concerned that is the end of it. It is time now to move on,” he said.
Mr Eunson also said that he was happy with the outcome of the meeting: “The agricultural industry in Shetland is facing difficult times and whilst people have very different and very strongly held views, I hope we can move ahead in a constructive manner now that Allison’s apology has cleared the air.
“Allison is not afraid to speak his mind and after all that has been said, I appreciate his agreeing to meet today to draw a line under this episode.”
Meanwhile, SLMG held a series of meetings this week to gather ideas from the community about the future of the group.
The meetings, in Gutcher on Monday and Voe on Tuesday, had a good turnout with over 40 people attending at Voe. There is also one tonight in Cunningsburgh.
Mr Eunson said the response to the meetings had been good: “It’s been very positive … we haven’t had many folk expressing the level of dissatisfaction with the co-operative that’s certainly been expressed in the council chamber.”
Mr Eunson gave an overview of the group’s current situation and explained why it was in the position it was.
He said that among SLMG’s biggest difficulties was the “state of constant change” it had gone through in recent years, with fluctuations in staff and outside factors of livestock regulations and alterations in agriculture also causing problems.
Another major issue was the accounts of the co-operative and specifically the detrimental sale of a stock of lambs to Faroe for which payment was never received and the issue of the closure of a local butcher shop.
The main aim of the meetings, he said, was to find out what those in the agricultural sector feel about the situation and how best to move forward.
Mr Eunson said: “I suppose we need to get an indication from folk that they actually want a mart and abattoir facility available to everybody in Shetland and we want to see folk support both facilities, because if we don’t have evidence of commitment to it from crofters and farmers then the council will simply not provide any support.”
Among some of the issues put to the board were worries about shares bought by members and whether these were still available.
The question of the lamb sold to Faroe was also discussed, with an attendee asking whether there was any chance of SLMG ever being paid. Mr Eunson said this was an ongoing issue for SLMG, which is not in direct contact with the buyer but is “hoping to get somewhere”.
In a related question, someone asked whether the group had run a credit check on the buyer.
The board responded by saying the man in question had been in contact with the group and had visited Shetland many times over a two year period. He had also invested time and money in Shetland and had been looking to build a house here. They had believed, in light of this, that he was trustworthy.
Present at the meeting was North Isles councillor Josie Simpson. He said that although better facilities were needed to market agriculture in Shetland, if the industry would work together as a whole it would get on better. He also said he was hopeful that SLMG would come out of the meetings with a view to taking the group forward.
Mr Eunson said that the support shown has been encouraging: “We’re not the most united of industries, however it’s heartening to see so much support when things go bad.
“It’s easy to kick something when it’s down. Nobody is saying [the group] is perfect but [we need] feedback on how you’d like it to change.”
Councillor Addie Doull asked the board why no Shetland lamb was sold in Tesco.
Mr Eunson said that several inspectors had visited from London to inspect the abattoir at Laxfirth and had “loved the product”. The facilities, however, were unfortunately not up to the standards required, the abattoir not having enough room for the extra machinery needed or the funds to purchase it.
A fact sheet was handed out at the meeting, detailing among other things SLMG’s figures and statistics for sales, users of SLMG and the building at the marts in Lerwick, the use of the abattoir and wages paid to seasonal workers.
According to this, there are 126 members of SLMG who sell stock at the marts and 190 non-members. There are over double the amount of people who buy stock at the marts that are not members of SLMG compared to those that are.
The issue of membership has been a contentious issue for the group. Mr Eunson asked whether it should be compulsory, to which there were no objections. Board member Aaron Sinclair said a full membership was not only important for revenue factors but also because it sent a strong message about support for the group in Shetland.
A member of the public also asked whether the co-operative could survive without the support of shareholders.
Replying, Mr Eunson said: “The co-op is without any physical assets so would need shareholders to have a secure future. The laptop is [our] biggest asset at the moment.”
The group are undertaking a business review, which has to be completed by the 17th April. In an attempt to make this review as useful as possible, questionnaires were handed out at the meetings.
Mr Eunson said: “The main thing to consider is future generations. If there is no mart, what is there to inspire young folk into going into agriculture? Does the agricultural community want the mart maintained, improved or to let it go?”