17th October 2018
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Robinson: Islands ready to explore autonomy question

The future of island autonomy will be debated tomorrow and Friday at the Pickaquoy Leisure Centre in Kirkwall.

Several Shetland representatives, including SIC political leader Gary Robinson, will be taking part in the Our Islands Our Future conference, which could ultimately change the constitutional shape of Scotland.

Politicians, academics, industry representatives and civil servants will all be debating the future relationship between Scotland and its islands: Orkney, the Western Isles and Shetland.

SIC political leader Gary Robinson.

SIC political leader Gary Robinson.

Not so long ago, such a debate seemed enormously unlikely. The issue of autonomy had seemed to fade almost into silence since the final days of the Shetland Movement back in the 1990s.

Our Islands Our Future is happening for one simple reason: a year from now, people in Scotland will vote on whether or not to remain part of the United Kingdom.

That vote is of obvious national  significance but for anyone living in or interested in the isles, the question of independence cannot be reduced to a single answer – yes or no. In fact, the referendum raises a series of questions, beginning with: What about us?

Earlier this week Mr Robinson described the moment that Our Islands Our Future was born, in a hotel in Inverness after a meeting. He found himself together with Steven Heddle of Orkney Islands Council and Angus Campbell of  the Western Isles Council.

Mr Robinson said: “We started making a list of the things that we had in common and might want to campaign on, and we actually found that it was quite a big list. The things that we wanted to keep to ourselves and maybe not do any joint working on was a pretty short list.

“Transport, renewable energy, digital communications: all those kinds of things were big ticket items across the three islands.”

Mr Robinson said there was an immediate effect when the campaign was launched in June.

He said: “Until Our Islands Our Future came along the nationalists were saying what everyone expected the nationalists to say, and the unionists were saying what everyone expected the unionists to say.

“Then all of a sudden, like a bolt from the blue, came the islands campaign, and nobody expected that. I think probably the thing that took most people by surprise was that it wasn’t just the old Orkney and Shetland Movements again, but we’d roped in the Western Isles, and we were doing something really different.”

The following month, while in Shetland, First Minister Alex Salmond acknowledged the strength of the islands’ arguments in what he called “The Lerwick Declaration”.

Mr Salmond said: “We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future.” That, he said was “the essence of self-determination, therefore we support subsidiatiry and local decision-making”.

According to Mr Robinson discussions with the Scottish government  have been “positive” and “encouraging”.

Talks have focused on the functions of the Crown Estate and control over the seabed, which, though still a Westminster issue, is something the Scottish government wishes to see devolved, regardless of the result of next year’s vote.

Other issues that are prioritised for debate include grid connections to the mainland and more control over local resources, including renewable energy and fisheries.

Mr Robinson said: “To be honest there’s a range of things, [including some] where the responsibility lies at Holyrood, some at Westminster and others at the European level. So I think it’s really important that we engage at all of those levels if we’re going to get the best out of it.”

The goal of Our Islands Our Future was not full autonomy for the isles, Mr Robinson said. In fact, the speech made by MSP Tavish Scott earlier this year, in which he referred to “Wir oil”, had proved, if anything, unhelpful.

Mr Robinson said: “Part of the problem we’ve had since [that speech] is that everyone that wants to speak to us asks, ‘What’s this about independence for the islands?’ And then we have to talk them back and say, actually, it’s not. That’s never what our aim was.

“I think it was Winnie Ewing that said many years ago that she was in favour of Orkney and Shetland having as much autonomy as they wished, up to but just short of independence. I think at the moment we are just exploring how far we want to go in that.”

The island councils were “taking a fairly cautious approach,” Mr Robinson said.

“We’re probably, through this conference, going to explore just how far we want to go in terms of autonomy.

“Independence has never really been on our radar. It’s more been a case of devolution, but how far with devolution and what exactly do we want?”

Reports from the Our Islands Our Future conference will be published online and in next week’s Shetland Times.

About Malachy Tallack

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4 comments

  1. Ali Inkster

    If you think that Edinburgh or Westminster will willingly hand over any meaningful control of our islands or our future Gary then you are just kidding yourself and us. If you negotiate you start by asking for more than you want and then settle for what you actually want. Only a fool starts by asking for what he wants because without any leverage you will have to settle for a hell of a lot less.

    Reply
  2. David Spence

    I cannot see how Mr Robinson’s representation can be valid if his political agenda and loyalty is tied up with those in Westminster and this of the present day Tory Government, who were totally against devolution and, I suspect, will be totally against any breakup of the Union……independence for Scotland.

    Even although the Tories have little or next to no representation in Scotland, I feel that Mr Robinson’s loyalty to his party in England will prevail, and like any capitalist (said loosely) he will not do anything for Shetland unless his party gains greater as a result.

    I hope I am wrong, but given the Tories priority is more to do with the very much influential minority (business, banks….party donors etc etc) and not with the people of this country, I cannot see how Mr Robinson can serve the people of Shetland and this of his political party’s agenda of sustaining the Union at all costs without it being at a greater cost to himself????

    Even if Scotland does become independent, I suspect this Tory Government (if it is still in power) will do everything it can to make Scotland pay dearly for the breakup of the Union via Taxes, Interest Rates, Goods and Transport going through England before reaching Scotland, Defense, Electricity Power etc etc.

    Reply
  3. John Tulloch

    Aye, Ali, Thorfinn the Mighty will be spinning in his grave!

    Reply
  4. Gordon Harmer

    I thought it was just politicians who were out of touch with reality “taking a fairly cautious approach” aye that’s about right go in with kid gloves on and come out black and blue with nothing to show for your efforts.

    Gary Robertson needs to go in with a “we axe for what we want” attitude or we will get nothing.

    Reply

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