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Viewpoint / Opinion: the isles deserve another vote

FRIDAY’S news that Alistair Carmichael authorised the leak of a private government memo to undermine the credibility of the SNP ahead of the general election has come as a shock and an embarrassment.

Alistair is right to describe it as an “error of judgment”.

The memo was written by a reliable civil servant, yes. But it is no more than a third hand report of a conversation between a Scottish minister and a French ambassador, which should have made our MP question its authenticity rather than think it incriminating enough to make public.

He has now accepted that the memo was incorrect and apologised.

The greater error of judgment on Alistair’s part has been to wait until two weeks after the general election to admit his involvement.

For a full five weeks of campaigning he was aware that he was behind the leak.

Yet he lied to Channel Four that he first knew of the memo’s content when it was published by the Daily Telegraph and tried to brush it off, saying: “This is the middle of an election campaign, these things happen.”

For a whole month before the 7 May election he hid behind a Cabinet Office inquiry into the incident rather than come clean about his involvement.

The truth is that most people in the northern isles did not care much about the leaked memo.

It was part of a national fearmongering campaign our MP would have been less prominently involved in had he not been promoted to Scottish secretary by David Cameron back in 2013.

Many isles folk respect Alistair’s work representing this constituency, and for good reason.

It is open to question whether Shetland would still have its coastguard station in Lerwick or its emergency tug had he not been in government during the first swing of the coalition’s austerity axe.

It is certainly the case that there would have been no resolution of the unjust housing debt Shetland has been saddled with for too long by too many governments – a matter on which the SNP government in Holyrood itself has questions to answer.

However waiting seven weeks – until after the general election – to own up about the leak opens Alistair up to the charge of campaigning under false pretenses.

Bearing in mind the closeness of the Orkney and Shetland result, his silence on the issue could have made all the difference to who represents the northern isles at Westminster for the next five years.

The question for him to consider now is whether he feels he can legitimately represent these isles until 2020 with this albatross around his neck.

By seeking to undermine the credibility of the SNP, Alistair has unfortunately undermined his own.

There is a lesson here for our LibDem MSPs as they limber up for a tough fight to retain their Shetland and Orkney seats at Holyrood.

Negative campaigning fails to inspire and can backfire.

An unintended consequence of Alistair’s leak and subsequent confession is the damage it may have done to Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur’s chances of being re-elected next May.

The best way to resolve this whole matter and restore full legitimacy to the current situation would be to re-run the election we’ve just had.

Alistair may say that his conduct as Scottish secretary has no bearing on his work as a constituency MP, but he should let his constituents be the judge of that.