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Scottish Independence Debate / Vote offers chance for grown up debate

Island council leaders Angus Campbell, Steven Heddle and Gary Robinson at Thursday's opening of the historic Our Islands, Our Future conference in Kirkwall. Photo Ken Amer

THE INDEPENDENCE referendum offers Shetlanders the chance to have a proper and grown up political debate for the first time in over 60 years.

That was the view of Shetland Island Council leader Gary Robinson at the first day of the Our Islands, Our Future conference being held in Orkney on Thursday.

All three island councils set out their stall at the start of the two day conference, but Mr Robinson said the immediate priority for Shetland was to maintain control of the existing powers they already hold.

“Orkney and Shetland have their own Acts of Parliament and we want to make sure we don’t lose the powers already conferred on us,” he said.

But beyond that all three councils see big opportunities, regardless of the outcome of next year’s referendum.

“On transport, on renewable energy, telecommunications and broadband, all these things really matter for us more than the rest of Scotland,” Robinson added.

It was a view supported by Iain MacWhirter, the journalist and political commentator who is chairing the event. He believes the timing has never been better for the islands to secure additional powers.

“I think the islands are in a very strong position to secure more control over a range of areas,” he said.

“Things like the Crown Estate, that’s not really within the gift of the Scottish Parliament. It is one of Alex Salmond’s demands of Westminster.

“The demands being made by the [Our Islands Our Future] campaign are pretty much the same arguments the Scottish government’s been making of Westminster.

“Look at Shetland. There is another oil and gas boom there. I’ve just been hearing that there are more temporary beds on sleeping barges for workers going to service the Shetland oil industry than there are in the entire hotels and bed and breakfast establishments in Shetland.

“That gives you a measure of what is happening up here and they can really call the shots now if they want to.

“They have the history, when oil first came in the seventies and eighties and they managed to deliver an oil fund.

“That was a historic development with special legislation passed to allow them to levy on every barrel of oil that came in.

“Now on top of that there is this green revolution taking place.”

At the start of the campaign the three island councils were keen to stress that nothing would be left off the table in their discussions with Scottish and UK ministers, but one option that had once been considered, complete autonomy for each of the three islands, will not be progressed.

“We are not going to step outside the family of local authorities in Scotland,” Robinson said.

“We want more powers devolved to the islands which will benefit our own economies and also Scotland.”

It is a view endorsed by the other council leaders, regardless of the outcome of next year’s vote.

Orkney and Shetland are slightly different from the Western Isles in a political sense, because they had regularly changed party allegiance, he added.

“Orkney and Shetland has been a Liberal seat since 1950 and not really experienced political campaigning at this level before.

“This is our first opportunity in many years to have a proper, grown-up political debate in Orkney and Shetland and I am quite excited.”

Mark Hirst