A ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for constitutional change’, conference told

The Our Islands Our Future conference in Kirkwall concluded today with what could only be described as a consensus: that the relationship between the UK, Scotland and the Scottish islands is going to change.

What the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland ultimately decide to work towards – whether it be a few additional decision-making powers or something more closely resembling autonomy – is still very much up for discussion, but the need for some kind of change is no longer, it seems, in dispute.

On the second day of the conference, which brought together politicians from the three islands councils, as well as from Holyrood and Westminster, delegates heard presentations on some of the issues that are likely to prove central to the campaign. These included the control of marine resources and energy, as well as constitutional status and public sector change.

Of particular interest to many, too, was a discussion by Jean-Didier Hache, the executive secretary of the Islands Commission of the Conference of Peripheral Regions, an organisation that lobbies within the European Union on behalf of island regions. Mr Hache discussed the wide variety of models available to islanders who are looking to strengthen their voice at a national and European level.

“You are not at all breaking into new ground”, he explained. In fact, the majority of island regions in Europe already have some kind of special status or autonomy; the Scottish islands are currently something of an exception.

Two speakers from regions already enjoying such special status – Faroe and the Åland Islands – also gave presentations today. And while most contributors to the conference seemed to be thinking along more modest lines, Jörgen Pettersson, an MP in the Åland parliament, urged delegates to be ambitious.

If the Scottish islands wanted help or advice on their way forward, he said, “we will be there for you”. And though it was right to consider the potential costs of autonomy, Mr Pettersson asked: “Can you afford not to try and find new ways into the future?”

Inevitably, talk about next year’s referendum was impossible to escape, and speeches by Lord (Jim) Wallace, MSP Derek Mackay, Dennis Canavan of Yes Scotland and Liam McArthur MSP of Better Together, all focused on the arguments for and against independence.

Both sides, it seemed, were supportive of the islands’ campaign. Dennis Canavan described it as “a great opportunity for decentralisation”, while Liam MacArthur reminded delegates of former Orkney and Shetland MP and leader of the Liberal Party Jo Grimond’s “commitment to greater autonomy for our isles”.

Among those who spoke strongly in favour of real and significant change was John Goodlad, who, as well as his work with fisheries and aquaculture, also stood as the candidate for the Orkney and Shetland Movements in 1987.

Concluding his talk on the local management of fisheries, Mr Goodlad declared: “I remain committed to the principle that people in the islands should have more say over their own affairs”.

“Don’t be modest in your aspirations”, he urged. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for constitutional change.”

Iain Macwhirter
Iain Macwhirter

Speaking at the end of the conference, the man who had acted as chairman, political journalist Iain Macwhirter, told The Shetland Times that Our Islands Our Future had managed to “rise above” the kind of debate often found at political events. “It didn’t just become a dialogue of the deaf, between entrenched positions”, he said.

In addition, the conference “didn’t make the mistake of trying to come to too elegant or simplistic a model for the constitutional future for the islands. Because the great lesson from what we heard [today] from the other island communities in Europe, is that you should make it a process. The process is the thing, rather than getting too obsessed about exactly what the destination is.

“Nobody knows here whether the islands will end up with Faroese status or like the Åland Islands or the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, and in a sense you don’t need to bother about that. It’s best to move incrementally in the right direction, and in specific areas, like the Crown Estate.”

Mr Macwhirter was also confident that the islands will be listened to, both in Holyrood and Westminster. With the strength of their arguments – many of which chime with the SNP’s own – as well as the upcoming referendum and the boom in renewable energy, oil and gas, the timing of this campaign was “excellent”.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to take the islands for granted in future” he concluded. 


Add Your Comment
  • Ali Inkster

    • September 20th, 2013 20:10

    Yes let’s move in incremental steps that way sometime in the next century when the oil and gas is all gone and our seas have been swept clean by the European fleet then the UK or Scotland can cast us off like a used condom, well and truly screwed. In the meantime we can continue to contribute far more than we receive and be thankful for the privilege.

  • John Tulloch

    • September 20th, 2013 20:23

    This is a bit more like it but why are we sae blate about pressing our case?

    We’ve learned today that Scottish islands are “exceptional” for their lack of autonomy versus the other islands of Europe and what are we like, worried we may lose what little we have as we tremulously ask, like Oliver Twist to Parish Beadle Mr Bumble, “Please sir, can we have some more?”?

  • John Tulloch

    • September 21st, 2013 9:00

    Don’t worry, Ali, when the time comes the Danes will maybe take pity on us and redeem the pawn – they’re world leaders in recycling!

  • Ali Inkster

    • September 22nd, 2013 18:34

    “in fact the majority of island regions in Europe already have some kind of special status or autonomy; THE SCOTTISH ISLANDS ARE CURRENTLY SOMETHING OF AN EXCEPTION.”
    That one sentence sums up precisely the fact that we have been getting screwed over for years by Edinburgh. Why should we be going cap in hand asking for our rights to be restored we should be demanding our rights and if they refuse to accept our case then we should declare unilaterally our full independence. Folks here will claim we can’t get it right just look at the council. We’ll I will counter that the council is hamstrung before it even starts with a civil service based on the UK system where empires are built by small people bigging themselves up by expanding their own departments to increase their own position and pay. Hamstrung by a civil service that creates 300 page reports for councilors to try and digest when they should be producing reports that are short and to the point.
    If we want leaders of a better calibre to stand then we need to give those leaders the powers to affect real change.
    Of course to begin with we will get things wrong we will make mistakes but they will be our mistakes and we will learn from them a lot quicker than the lumbering behemoth that is the UK.
    As Shetlanders we are proud of our history and sense of fair play.
    Well let us use that history and sense fair play to make a better future for ourselves and along with our Orcadian cousins show them on that large island to our south just how it should be done.

  • David Spence

    • September 25th, 2013 2:10

    Ali, I hate to say this, and I hope I am proven wrong, but when it comes to Shetland and Shetlanders wishing to promote the islands or argue their case for Shetland to be given special treatment in the political arena of Scotland or the UK, it will, more than likely, be the same old same………..lets do nothing as we do not want to rock the boat…..we are happy with the status quo……..reaction………or……if it isn’t broke, why fix it attitude….and let the powers that be exploit these islands for their own needs rather than this of the people who reside on these islands.

    As said, I hope I am proven wrong and shetlanders can stand up against the ‘ big boys ‘ in the political arena and fight for Shetland and have greater autonomy and say in what affects the islands and the economy which will give us greater control and power…….and one never knows, may be one day we even might have the audacity to question Scotland legal right to these islands lol


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