The first of this season’s Althing debates drew a considerable crowd. It’s hard to say whether this was due to its central location (Isleburgh) or the motion: “Brexit is best for Shetland”.
Either way, the evening was a thought-provoking one, with four informative and engaging speakers, who were followed by a lively question and answer session in the second half.
Speaking for the motion were Yes Shetland founder Brian Nugent and Fjara Cafe Bar owner Dennis Leask, while speaking against were councillor Gary Robinson and businesswoman Helen Erwood.
Chairman Andrew Halcrow welcomed the speakers and the audience, and conducted an initial show of hands. Nine were in favour of the motion, 31 against. 18 were undecided.
Mr Nugent, who was first to speak, began by assuring his listeners that this would be “the first and only time” he would speak on the side of the Union Jack. He described the EU referendum campaign as “appalling” in its negativity.
Mr Nugent, who campaigned locally, was keen to stress that “at no point” was immigration any part of his message, adding that without European migrants the local health service and hotel trade would suffer, not to mention his 5-a-side football team.
Mr Nugent argued that the EU was an anti-democratic organisation which interfered with democratically elected governments (he gave the example of Greece), adding: “If you enter the EU, you give away your sovereignty”.
In contrast, UK life post-Brexit, while uncertain, seemed to offer groups “of all interests” the opportunity to “make their cases” and “take action”.
The first speaker to oppose the motion was Mr Robinson.
Mr Robinson spoke of all the good things which Shetland has enjoyed thanks to the European Union, listing piers, roads and Mareel as benefits which we might not have were it not for EU funding. He went on to speak about a range of European funds which had been of direct benefit to Shetlanders, including the agricultural support.
Mr Robinson was also concerned that young people’s ability to work and travel in Europe will be severely curtailed.
Mr Leask was next to speak for the motion, although he did commence by wondering just how marketing-savvy his stance was, given the large number of Fjara regulars he had spotted in the audience.
He began by saying that he felt that the referendum had bridged, rather than created divides, as he would never have dreamed “of sharing a stage with one of these terrible nationalists” before.
Mr Leask gave a number of examples of why he thought Shetland would be better off without the EU. In his view, the “concept of fiscal responsibility” did not exist for the EU – 20 million euros were recently spent on a social media tribute for the organisation.
For Mr Leask, that sat uncomfortably in an era of widespread poverty and unemployment.
Mr Leask made several references to things he had witnessed himself, both at home and abroad. Of his travels around the Mediterranean he remarked: “People in the Med are more relaxed. They’re not as materialistic as us. You can’t put all of these different types of people in the same socioeconomic straitjacket.”
Ms Erwood, speaking against the motion, introduced herself as a “migrant”, who had travelled around the country before making her home in Shetland. She admitted that Brexit hadn’t been at all good for her or her business.
The day after the vote, she had been forced to reregister her company (a consultancy serving the pharmaceutical industry) in Ireland: a procedure which generated a great deal of additional expense and time. She added that the UK pharmaceutical industry had been “devastated” by the referendum result.
Ms Erwood laid the blame firmly at the feet of the Westminster government, to which Shetland is altogether “off the radar”. She added: “We will never be considered for extra subsidies when the chips are down”.
The prospects for young people were, in Ms Erwood’s opinion, pretty grim. She outlined a bleak future in which a failing economy would result in poor roads, less frequent ferries. school closures and the depopulation of smaller islands. Local facilities, such as Mareel, the library and the museum would be under severe strain.
After a break for bannocks, tea and traybakes the debate opened up to receive comments and questions from the floor.
Pia Duernberger, who described herself as a European who has lived in Shetland for 32 years, remarked that recent months had left her feeling “uncomfortable” in this country for the first time.
Ms Duernberger added that she cared less about a strong economy, and more about an inclusive society.
I could not vote in this referendum – so much for your democracy – PIA DUERNBERGER
She said: “I could not vote in this referendum – so much for your democracy.”
This was followed by a lengthy comment on the Common Fisheries Policy by Jonathan Wills. Dr Wills concluded his speech by saying that in his view, “we do not have to do what an ignorant ill-informed majority tells us to do”.
The last question of the evening was from Lindsey Sim who asked: “What will Brexit mean for young people?”
Mr Leask assured her that Brexit would result in a stronger economy, which underpins everything. His positive view was not reflected in the final poll: 12 voted for the motion, 35 against, while 6 were still undecided.