Over 50 people attended the Lerwick Town Hall last night to raise questions on independence before justice minister Kenny MacAskill.
The two-hour meeting was described as having, proportionately, the largest audience of any similar event to be held throughout the country in the run-up to the referendum date.
A wide range of questions focused on a variety of subjects, including oil revenue, Trident, and European membership.
Mr MacAskill said the isles had a “distinct” and “unique” character. Independence, he said, offered Scotland a chance to make its own decisions on key issues.
SNP figures state Scotland has been ruled by governments it had rejected at the ballot box for 34 out of the last 68 years.
The Scottish government insists 89 per cent of Scottish MPs opposed cuts to child benefit, while 91 per cent were against the bedroom tax.
Eighty per cent are said to have been against the privatisation of Royal Mail, while a similar number said no to public sector pension changes.
Mr MacAskill said Scotland had the opportunity to enjoy a brighter future than it had enjoyed for generations.
He said: “We do believe this is a choice of two different futures for Scotland. If we vote yes, we will decide whether there is to be a bedroom tax, or whether there are to be weapons of mass destruction stationed on the Clyde.”
The first question from the floor focused on how an independent Scotland might look. Answers were needed over how Scotland’s defence system would operate, and how Scotland might stand in the EU.
Mr MacAskill said many “unknowns” were as a result of the UK government. He was positive Scotland presented many opportunities for the EU.
The threat, he said, came from the UK government and its increasing anti-Europe stance – especially since established Euro-sceptic Philip Hammond had replaced William Hague in this week’s cabinet reshuffle at Westminster.
“On Trident, that’s non-negotiable,” he said, describing the controversial defence system as “militarily useless in the world we face and morally repugnant.”
Stuart Hill was quick to ask the relevance behind the referendum debate in Shetland, given his argument that the Crown had been unable to prove Shetland was part of Scotland.
Retired SIC councillor John Nicolson referred to aspirations for Scotland to become like its Nordic neighbours.
He highlighted the wartime experience of Norway and the support that country had enjoyed from the UK help liberate it from Nazi rule, to the extent that Norwegians now enjoyed their freedom.
” ‘Small’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘strength’,” Mr Nicolson insisted.
He added that he found a perceived “arrogant” style of First Minister Alex Salmond “distasteful” – something that appeared to be rubbing off on deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“You might have a word in his lug,” Mr Nicolson said.
Mr MacAskill said his father had fought in the war and highlighted the NHS – set up in the aftermath of the war, but now being “undermined and dismantled” thanks to the direction of travel towards privatisation.
Asked about the role of the media, he said he had been “pilloried” by the Daily Mail, but was prepared to accept that given the far-right stance the newspaper had taken on certain issues.
“Sometimes you just have to live with that,” he said.
The minister was also asked about the introduction of interception – or “snooping” – legislation at Westminster.
Mr MacAskill said SNP MPs had voted against the legislation, which he insisted was rushed. He criticised Westminster for failing to negotiate with Holyrood – or even Police Scotland – over the legislation.
He insisted there was a legitimate use for covert activities, but said the UK government had acted improperly in seeking to introduce the new legislation. “The process was wrong,” he told audience members.
Renewable energy would play a major part in an independent Scotland, although there were still plenty of opportunities to be gleaned from oil and gas reserves, Mr MacAskill said.
He said an independent Scotland would face up to the task of investing in infrastructure to “keep people working”, and help the country move on from what he called the “de-skilling of a whole generation” brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.
Questions were asked about police numbers in the isles and armed officers throughout the force area. Mr MacAskill also faced a question on the anticipated turnout on 18th September.
He admitted there had been problems in police numbers but insisted new recruits were coming. The issue is likely to be discussed during a meeting with local area commander, Chief Inspector Eddie Graham, which is scheduled to take place today.
Mr MacAskill added fewer than 300 out of more than 17,000 Police Scotland officers were authorised to use firearms. They had, he said, to be ready to respond on demand, but were still required to help out with regular police duties.
“The chief says just because you’ve got a pistol and a taser doesn’t mean you don’t do the job of a police officer.”
He said more people had voted in the 1997 referendum on devolution than any Scottish election since. The turnout in the last referendum in Quebec had been 90 per cent.
“The evidence is there from Canada and Scotland. That’s one of the reasons why I think we’re going to win.”
Reaction after the meeting was divided. Long-time independence supporter Bill Adams said he had supported the idea of separating from the UK since his school days.
“It’s really great to get the opportunity to vote in a referendum – not just on devolution, but on actual independence,” Mr Adams said. “Independence is different, because power devolved is power retained.”
Better Together supporter Geordie Jacobson was not convinced, however.
He said: “My reaction, when it was all over, was that it was ‘business as usual’ from the nationalists.
“It was the usual story that everything we enjoy as part of the union at the moment will bide, with no thought of what folk on the other side of the border might think after a possible yes vote for independence.
“We heard a lot of ‘only if we get independence will things improve …’ but as usual there was no sign whatseover of an answer to the questions ‘how?’ or ‘why?’ “
Attending the evening was tourist Kees Sinke, who was gaining a perspective on the independence debate during his holiday from the Netherlands.
He cited the “solidarity” felt between East and West Germans when the Berlin Wall came down. He worried where solidarity would be between Scots and English if a yes vote was returned in September.
But Mr Sinke was impressed by the question-and-answer session.
“I was thinking if I could vote, I should vote yes. But I’ve only heard one argument, of course. There are so many issues.”