A new ministerial task force will be set up to examine how Shetland and the other island groups can gain greater autonomy as part of a “Lerwick Declaration” by First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday.
Mr Salmond said he was particularly open to the idea of devolving control over the foreshore, currently under the control of the UK-wide Crown Estate, to the islands.
He also said giving Shetlanders greater input into the drawing up of ferry contracts was a “huge issue”, while it would be useful for the three islands to have a stronger voice in the European Union.
“What I’m doing today is making a ‘Lerwick Declaration’,” he said. “it seems obvious that a government that believes in the people who live and work in Scotland running the country also believes in subsidiarity and local decision-making.”
Speaking after the SNP Cabinet discussed the matter in Lerwick Town Hall yesterday, Mr Salmond said the government was making a “very friendly response” to Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles’ joint “Our Islands – Our Future” campaign.
The three islands are seeking greater control as part of a wider constitutional debate ahead of next September’s referendum on Scottish independence.
SNP finance secretary John Swinney said the creation of a working group would pave the way for more powers to be devolved to the isles.
In response, SIC political leader Gary Robinson said yesterday: “The Scottish government announcement that they are prepared to set up a working group is most welcome.
“From the perspective of the three islands, this has to be seen as a positive development as we seek to get the best out of the change that will inevitably happen beyond the referendum in 2014.”
Earlier this month a challenge was laid down by the three island councils for their different needs to be recognised, with a series of questions fired off to political leaders in Holyrood and Westminster.
Mr Robinson added: “While our campaign is politically neutral, we certainly welcome the opportunity to engage with the Scottish government and are very pleased that a working group will be set up, and that our campaign is being taken seriously.
“We need to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, we have secured the very best future for the three islands and their communities.”
Mr Robinson’s comments were backed by Orkney Islands Council convener Steven Heddle and Western Isles leader Angus Campbell.
After the meeting Mr Swinney said: “Scotland’s island communities are an invaluable source of energy, creativity and talent.
“They are made up of people with rich and diverse backgrounds who all contribute to making Scotland as a nation flourish. One of the great advantages of the independence debate is the opportunity to reflect on the sort of Scotland we wish to see.
“I am pleased to confirm that the Scottish government has agreed in principle, jointly with campaign leaders from the three island authorities, to convene a new ministerial working group to consider the issues it raises.”
The group’s remit and working arrangements will be agreed in the coming weeks with a view to holding the first meeting shortly after.