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SIC welcomes first islands minister

New islands minister Derek Mackay (second left) with the three island council leaders Steven Heddel, Gary Robinson and Angus Campbell during the Our Islands Our Future pre-referendum talks.

SHETLAND Islands Council leader Gary Robinson has welcomed the appointment of Derek Mackay as Scotland’s first islands minister, saying it boded well for the future.

Creating such a post was a pledge made by the Scottish government in their paper Empowering Scotland’s Islands published ahead of the independence referendum in September.

The commitment was made following negotiations with the three island councils and Mackay, who was then local government minister.

On Friday first minister Nicola Sturgeon promoted Mackay to transport and islands minister, a move that has gone down well with the SIC.

Robinson said as transport was such an important part of island life, it was encouraging the two portfolios had been put together in a single brief.

He added that appointing Mackay to the post would mean there was no delay in continuing talks on devolving greater powers to the islands from Holyrood.

“Clearly had it been a different minister, there would have been a delay in getting everything back up to speed again, but the fact that Derek has been involved in this from nearly the start of Our Islands Our Future means that we can carry on the good work that we have done so far,” he said.

Top of the agenda will be internal and external ferry services, with the three islands wanting to see a level playing field and fairer fares.

Robinson said it was not right that Shetland had to cover half the cost of its ferry service and pay the full cost of replacing vessels, when they were centrally funded in the Western Isles.

The new £42 million Ullapool to Stornaway ferry Loch Seaforth launched this year, fully funded by the Scottish government.

“We are finding it extremely difficult to fund any capital replacement and we are seeing new ferries on the Hebrides and Clyde routes completely funded by the Scottish government,” he said.

Talks are also ongoing to find a fairer system of charging ferry fares, with a recognition that Shetland pays the highest fares in Scotland on the Serco NorthLink lifeline service to Aberdeen.

Discussions are also ongoing about replacing the existing NorthLink ferries when the new contract is signed in 2018.

“Those are the kind of things we have made the Scottish government aware of through Derek Mackay, so I am quite hopeful his appointment bodes well for getting the right decisions made on a range of issues such as this,” Robinson said.

“Derek has been extremely good to work with. His background is in local government – he was, at one time Scotland’s youngest council leader – so he understands our situation very well.

“Steven (Heddle, Orkney’s convener), Angus (Campbell, Western Isles leader) and I have established a good working relationship with several other ministers and cabinet secretaries through our work with him.

“Our hope is that we can build on this in order to deliver the pledges set out in the Scottish government’s prospectus for the islands.”

He added that the Empowering Scotland’s Islands document had made around 160 commitments, of which about 100 could be met without Scottish independence.

Meanwhile the three councils are continuing their discussions with Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael to devolve as many powers to the islands from Westminster as possible.

The highest profile issue is control of and revenue from the seabed, currently the domain of the Crown Estate Commission.

If this is devolved to Scotland there will need to be further negotiations about the level of powers that will be handed down further to local government.

Europe is also a major concern with Westminster, which is the UK’s representative body in Brussels.

“This twin track approach has been in place from the outset and I can’t see the circumstances where that would change for the simple reason that the discussions that we have been having with Alistair Carmichael were around things that were reserved to Westminster, …and the things that we are speaking to the Scottish government about are things like transport, which is a big one in the islands.”

“Having the islands minister also as the minister for transport can only help us to get our point across.”