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Viewpoint / Sturgeon: Devolving decisions to the islands

I was delighted to be asked to write the first ever Viewpoint column for Shetland News. We live in very exciting political times, and the more opportunities for people to engage in debate, the better.

Scotland’s independence referendum last September was the most significant democratic event of my lifetime, and the level of engagement it sparked across Scotland – with a near 85 per cent turnout – was a refreshing challenge to the idea that voter participation in Western democracies is on an ever downward spiral.

Deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon had a rapturous reception after the BBC debate. Photo Shetnews
Deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon in the Shetland Museum in summer 2014.

And the impact of the referendum campaign is reverberating still, to the extent that the independence referendum and its aftermath remains one of the major engines driving not just Scottish politics, but the UK political landscape as a whole.

On a more personal level, I recently marked my 100th day in office as First Minister. One of the commitments I made when I took office was that I wanted to be the most accessible First Minister ever – for people in every corner of Scotland. I’ve held a number of Facebook Q&As since then – and have recently launched my own website, where you can email me directly – at www.firstminister.gov.scot

Shortly before the referendum, I had the pleasure of visiting Shetland and received a very warm welcome – complete with some beautiful late summer sunshine.

Even before I arrived I got a sense of how engaged Shetlanders were with the whole independence debate, taking part in a lively Q&A among passengers on the ferry from Aberdeen.

I spent the evening at another packed event at the Shetland Museum where I was again struck by the sheer variety of questions asked.

It’s no exaggeration to say the generous welcome and hospitality I received was one of the highlights of the campaign, and has left a special place in my heart for Shetland.

What I really came to appreciate as a result of my visit was how important it is that people in Shetland and in other island communities are able to have decisions made as close to you as possible – and this is something that we politicians have to respond to.

It was of course my strong desire to see Scotland vote Yes in last year’s independence referendum, transferring all the powers to the Scottish Parliament and enabling us to empower local communities.

In return for a No vote, the people of Scotland were promised “extensive new powers” by the Westminster government, “as close to federalism as is possible” in the words of Gordon Brown.

Unfortunately, it turns out that what is actually being offered falls well short of this.

Even though we could have gone much further with independence, Shetlanders should be in absolutely no doubt about my Government’s commitment to empowering the islands.

When I became First Minister I appointed an islands minister, Derek Mackay, in my government, who is giving a renewed focus to Scotland’s islands communities.

Derek helped broker a deal between Shetland Islands Council and the UK government to address the long-running saga of Shetland’s historic housing debt.

He also recently extended the Highlands and Islands Air Discount Scheme, offering significant discounts on airfares for travellers from Shetland and other remote communities.

I hope actions such as these demonstrate our commitment to deliver for the people of Shetland – but we want to go much further.

Just last week Derek reconvened the island areas ministerial working group – which brings together ministers and politicians from across the islands. Issues on the agenda included the potential for a future islands bill consultation, the future of the Crown Estate, and the group’s work to date towards delivering on commitments outlined in the Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities prospectus, published last summer.

We want to consult fully with Scotland’s island communities about the further powers they want to see devolved to the islands – but also to ensure that Scotland and Shetland have power at Westminster.

A strong team of SNP MPs will not only demand the further powers we were promised to grow our economy, but we will also demand Westminster changes course to invest in fairness and recovery instead of four more years of cuts, calling for investment in growth and a move away from the damaging approach of the coalition which puts jobs and public services at risk.

In Danus Skene, Shetlanders have a candidate with significant campaigning experience who will always put their interests first. Danus and other SNP MPs will always focus their efforts on securing the best possible outcome for Scotland and for Shetland.

Over the next couple of months, I and my colleagues in the SNP will be working relentlessly to win the trust and support from people in every corner of Scotland.

May’s general election is a chance for people in Shetland to demand your voice is heard loud and clear in Westminster and to make sure your priorities come first. With your support for Danus and his SNP colleagues that is exactly what we will do.