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Scottish Independence Debate / Wills dismisses notion of islands referenda

Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills.

A SHETLAND councillor has dismissed efforts to persuade the Scottish government to stage separate referenda on independence for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles as a “half-witted idea”.

A self-described “ad hoc” group of individuals last month tabled a petition calling for the three island groups to be given the chance to vote on whether to remain part of Scotland, become an independent country or – if Scotland votes ‘yes’ on 18 September – stay with the remainder of the UK.

But Lerwick South councillor Jonathan Wills, who favours Scottish independence but is critical of the SNP government’s centralisation, said the idea was a pointless distraction.

Shetland Islands Council members have given their backing to the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign spearheaded by political leader Gary Robinson and his counterparts in Kirkwall and Stornoway. It is seeking further autonomy in various policy areas, but stops far short of demanding full independence.

Council convener Malcolm Bell told Shetland News he was unaware of any form of communication between the group calling for islands referenda and the SIC.

Last week Robinson told a national newspaper that the idea of Shetland remaining part of the UK if Scotland votes ‘yes’ would create problems in terms of how and where islanders would access healthcare, transport and education.

The petition idea came from Catriona Murray in Stornoway and Malcolm Lamont in Lerwick, who have told the media they are only contactable by email.

Bell said: “I’m not picking up any feeling that there’s demand [for an islands referendum] in Shetland, but time will tell and we’ll see how many signatures they get. In the absence of knowing anything about the group, and speaking with them, or them contacting us, it’s very difficult to provide an opinion on.”

But Wills said Shetland either becoming independent or staying with Westminster was an “absurd” and “half-witted” idea.

“It’s a ridiculous suggestion for one county of Scotland to set itself up as some sort of miniature state,” he said. “These grandiose fantasies were roundly demolished around the time of the Shetland Movement, which has died as far as I can see.”

Responding to questions from Shetland News by email, Murray said around 40 people were behind the petition – including 15 in Shetland. They want a poll of islanders to be conducted within a week of the nationwide referendum.

“We are not advocating that anybody should vote any particular way in either the islands referenda or in the Scottish referendum,” she explained.

Murray said the campaigners were “working in parallel” with the Our Islands, Our Future campaign, which is due to outline proposals for greater autonomy in the coming weeks.

So far 957 individuals have signed the petition. The group argues that, because the combined electorate in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles is only around 54,000, a 50,000-signature threshold will not be necessary to get their voice heard in parliament.

However it is unclear how many of those who have signed the petition to date are residents of the three island groups.

Wills, who represents the SIC in Brussels, said he was disappointed that power was being centralised in Edinburgh. But it is a problem in several European states – a result, he says, of their failure to honour the EU’s stated principle of devolving powers to the lowest possible level.

“I would favour a lot more devolution than we’ve got at present,” he said, “but it’s not a peculiarly British or Scottish problem. Ever since the first talk of devolution, Shetland Islands Council’s elected members have been losing powers.

“We lost powers over water and sewerage, we effectively have no power over police – a dysfunctional system where a citizen cannot go into a police station to make a complaint.”

On that much he agrees with Liberal Democrat politicians including Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who was last year accused of “mischief making” by raising the prospect of home rule for the islands.

Regarding the islands referenda Scott has previously welcomed the fact that people are making use of Holyrood’s petitioning process.

On Friday he insisted on Twitter that there was demand for islands referenda: “Plenty do want this,” he said, going on to stress that he has “never” favoured outright independence for Shetland.

But Wills said the solution was not “stoking up an anti-Edinburgh, pro-London line” which is “as wrong now” as it was when Jo Grimond raised it in the 1970s.

Instead he wants to see the UK and Scotland “put into effect existing European Union policy, which is devolution to county level”.