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Viewpoint / ‘Challenging conversations’

Council chief executive Maggie Sandison on the urgent need to improve the quality of debate on Up Helly Aa

SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison.

I HAVE concerns about the quality of the debate on Up Helly Aa – it has become a conversation that is “you’re either with us or against us” on both sides.

It’s a false dichotomy to force people to take sides; it is divisive and doesn’t allow us to have problem solving conversations as a community. It creates an environment where people go silent through fear.

I believe in equality of opportunity for men and women in all aspects of their lives and I can also see there is much to celebrate about Lerwick Up Helly Aa too.

Loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Social networks and friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help individuals to recover when they do fall ill.

Men typically find it more difficult to build social connections than women. Public health professionals are now intervening to create opportunities for men to get together – such as the Men’s Shed movement.

Up Helly Aa could claim to be the first “men’s shed”: squads are spaces for men to connect, converse and create. This can help reduce loneliness and isolation and support men’s mental wellbeing.

It took a community to create Up Helly Aa and it will take a community to change Up Helly Aa – not the action of this council.

I have said before that if women in Shetland want Up Helly Aa to change, it will happen. Most men involved have a mother, wife, sister, daughter and they have influence and power and they certainly do not need the council to wield that power for them.

There are men involved in Up Helly Aa who already feel it should change and they will need support to have those challenging conversations in an environment of respect, building on the Up Helly Aa organisation’s strengths rather than highlighting its weaknesses.

That will not happen while the conversation remains polarised.