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.
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.