Shetland Islands Council leader Gary Robinson used his opening speech at the Our Islands Our Future conference to outline the significance of the islands’ contribution to the UK economy.
The conference began today in Kirkwall with speeches from the three council leaders, setting out their vision for increased powers and constitutional change for the islands.
Introduced by political journalist Iain Macwhirter, Mr Robinson described the significance of the the islands’ economic input through fishing, aquaculture and oil in particular.
He stressed, too, the fact that Shetland gives £64 million more to the UK economy each year than it gets back. That, he said, cannot be ignored.
“We are serious players” Mr Robinson said, and “we feel we have legitimacy in pursuing our objectives.”
The history of oil in Shetland is proof of the islands’ ability to look after their affairs responsibly and successfully, he added. Sullom Voe, and the environmental protection co-ordinated by Sullom Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group, were a “triumph” of “self-determination”, he said.
But the Our Islands Our Future campaign is “not nostalgically looking back to the golden days of Sullom Voe” he assured the audience. Nor, he went on – with a gentle dig at Tavish Scott, seated not far away – is it “about ‘wir oil’ or ‘wir fish’. This is about “enhancing” local powers.
“Devolution was never supposed to stop at Edinburgh,” Mr Robinson said, but it was a process, bringing power into the hands of people and communities. The islands’ campaign is a continuation of that process.
Orkney Island Council’s Steven Heddle spoke of the need for legislation and policy decisions to always take the needs of the islands into account. We must have “island proofing”, he said, and called for “remoteness and insularity to be an equality issue”.
“We don’t think that one size fits all”, he added.
Mr Heddle highlighted a number of priorities, or ‘wants’, on which the conference and the campaign would focus.
The councils want to see “our perspective considered as a matter of course”, he said. “We want to enhance our relationship with Europe”.
We want “fiscal and regulatory powers to let us empower economic development – and sustainable development”, and we want “the chance to develop how we work with our community planning partners”.
Overall, he concluded, we’re not looking for the government to do this for us. “We’re asking for the tools to do it ourselves.”
While Angus Campbell of the Western Isles covered much of the same ground, he spoke passionately.: “The constitutional debate [in Scotland] has provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to try and create “a level playing field”.
“We have the talents and the vision, but we do need the tools” he went on. Our Islands Our Future was about getting those tools.
“When we have the powers to do so, we make things happen,” he said. “History will show that when we are given the chance to deliver, we do deliver.”
Mr Campbell said that there was “discrimination” against the islands, at a national level. And an “island act”, as he called it, “would address this discrimination”.
“What we are proposing is not just in the interests of the islands … it is in the interests of Scotland, the UK and Europe” he said. “We are not a problem, we are the solution.”
The Shetland Times’ coverage of Our Islands Our Future will continue online tomorrow, and in next week’s paper.