AN INTER island row has broken out after the Scottish government invited Shetland Islands Council to contribute towards chartering a ferry to cover the Pentland Firth route for three weeks this winter.
On Friday Orkney Islands Council convener Stephen Hagan castigated transport minister Keith Brown for negotiating behind their backs when he visited Shetland on Thursday.
Mr Brown had asked the SIC to pay part of the cost of chartering the western isles ferry Hebridean Isles when the Orkney ferry Hamnavoe is in dry dock from 23 January to 13 February.
The move, which councillors will discuss next Thursday, would mean Shetland would not need to provide one of its two ferries to cover the Orkney route, thus reducing the period they rely on a single ferry to six weeks.
However Mr Hagan said he was “appalled” by the lack of consultation with Orkney, adding that the Hebridean Isles was an “inferior vessel”, which was slower, less comfortable for passengers and would have difficulty berthing at Scrabster.
He said: “OIC should have been invited to the talks this week between Shetland Islands Council and the transport minister. These are lifeline ferry services of vital importance to both Orkney and Shetland and it’s only right that we should be fully involved in the discussions.”
He pointed out that Shetland received a much larger annual grant from the government than Orkney and therefore was better able to afford a contribution, but warned that it would set “a dangerous precedent”.
“Our external ferry services are a government responsibility and any funding of this kind should come from the government and not from local authorities,” he said.
SIC environment and transport committee chairman Allan Wishart moved swiftly to soothe any rift with the neighbouring authority, insisting there was “was never any intention of going behind Orkney Islands Council’s back here”.
“I have personally spoken to Stephen Hagan to reassure him of the situation and very much regret that there is concern and dismay in Orkney over this,” Mr Wishart said.
“It was always our intention to discuss the issues with Orkney Islands Council and I’m very hopeful that can be organised next week.”
Orkney’s Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur accused the government of trying to pit one northern isles community against another.
“This is exactly what he has done by the secretive and underhand way in which he and his officials have gone about dealing with this issue. At no stage were representatives from Orkney invited to take part in discussions of undeniable importance to these islands,” Mr McArthur said.
Writing on Twitter, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott added: “Scottish Gov playing divide and rule over lifeline ship links to Shetland and Orkney – not good government.”
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