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.”
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.