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Viewpoint / Bill will end in ‘one size fits all’ political fudge

Wir Shetland chairman John Tulloch.

NEWLY formed political group Wir Shetland is making its case for the islands to become a British overseas territory. Its chairman John Tulloch sets out why he believes Shetland, with its distinctive culture and history, ought to enjoy much greater political autonomy.

The public launch of Wir Shetland last Wednesday evening signalled a major change for group members, delivering them from the relative safety of offline deliberation to the “slings and arrows” of real-time political debate.

For example, the Scottish Islands Bill consultation currently underway poses the question of whether Wir Shetland should make a submission. It will be considered fully in due course and meanwhile is ruled neither out nor in. However, we are dubious of the merits of contributing.

Shetland (like Orkney) is different from other large Scottish islands where Gaelic is spoken and the history and culture centres primarily around the Scottish clan system. There is no Gaelic or tartan tradition in Shetland and precious few, if any, claymore-wielding Shetlanders lost their lives in the crushing defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden Moor, in 1746. The Jacobite standard, significantly, was raised at Glenfinnan in 1745, not Tingwall.

Kilts, sporrans and claymores are remarkable in Shetland by their absence but allusions to our Viking past are everywhere. That is why the Queen and prime minister of Norway were delighted to open the Shetland and Scalloway museums, respectively, the latter on Norway’s National Day in 2013.

The importance of fish and fishing to Shetland’s economy is unique among Scottish islands, more important than oil and employing a fifth of the islands’ workforce. Yet the industry has suffered and is suffering, grievously, as a result of Britain’s EU membership. How so?

When the UK, along with Norway, Denmark and Ireland, applied to join the EU (EEC as was), a law was passed giving EU vessels equal access to members’ fishing grounds – six hours before the official acceptance (30 June 1970) of the four fishing nations’ applications, meaning they would be obliged to accept what became known as the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) if they wished to join. The Norwegian people, wisely, rejected the deal but Britain and the others “took the hit” to gain access to the common market.

It was iniquitous. Control of Shetland’s legendary fishing grounds was surrendered on 22 January 1972, when the UK signed the EEC Treaty of Accession.

Within seven years (1979) Greenland had secured autonomy from Denmark and six years later (1985), they left the EU, regaining control of their fishing grounds. They had found themselves in exactly the same position as Shetland is still in and acted decisively to break out.

So Shetland has a powerful incentive to leave the EU. But what of our fish processing and our agriculture and aquaculture industries? To whom will our producers market their wares if we leave the EU? Why, to the EU, of course!

Norway, Iceland, Faroe and Greenland are all outside the EU and retain control of their fishing grounds yet sell their products freely within its markets.

Norway and Iceland have agreements which confer the advantages of market access, free movement of capital and labour, etc. Faroe and Greenland are entitled to the same via their continuing, autonomous, relationship with Denmark, precisely the kind of arrangement Wir Shetland is seeking for Shetland.

Alas, current SNP policy is to rejoin the EU with independence, taking Shetland with them. Rejoining will not harm the other Scottish islands but is in direct conflict with Shetland’s vital interests.

Attention to those interests will be, inevitably, diluted by participation in the Islands Bill consultation – the outcome of which will be a post-election, “one size fits all” political fudge, irrelevant to Shetland’s real needs. A consultation which cannot, by definition, deliver the kind of self-governing autonomy that Wir Shetland is seeking.

Shetland is different in every way, geography, history, culture and economics, from the islands of the west. Indeed, our problems are unique and require separate consideration.

The Islands Bill Consultation, in response to pressure from Our Islands Our Future (OIOF), is undoubtedly yet another attempt by Scottish authorities to obfuscate and delay addressing the real issues facing Shetland until after next year’s Scottish elections.

If permitted to do so, they will the “kick the can” ever further down the political road until after the next independence referendum, by which time Shetland’s current political leverage will have evaporated and the Holyrood door will slam, abruptly, in the faces of the OIOF hopefuls.

John Tulloch, Wir Shetland chairman