A LOT more could have been achieved for the islands had the Liberal Democrats properly engaged with the SNP minority government at Holyrood, according to first minister Nicola Sturgeon.
On her second visit to Shetland during the ongoing by-election campaign following the resignation of long-sitting MSP Tavish Scott, the first minister arrived on the NorthLink ferry Hjaltland on Wednesday morning.
Missing out on the experience of making the 12-hour crossing in a sleeping pod, her staff successfully managed to get hold of one of those hard to come by cabins at the height of the summer season.
Speaking over a coffee at The Dowry earlier on Wednesday, Sturgeon insisted that she and her cabinet were well aware of the significance of transport to any remote island community and understood the frustration felt by many.
But she put the blame for the slow progress on the many Shetland transport issues such as Road Equivalent Tariff (RET), internal transport funding and airport car parking charges, firmly at the door of the Liberal Democrats who have been representing the Northern Isles in the Scottish Parliament for the last 20 years.
She said the party was giving every election its “very best shot” and thus expressed her confidence that local SNP candidate Tom Wills could become the first Shetland parliamentary representative in almost 70 years that was not a Liberal.
“If I look at the last few years in particular, and watch how instead of getting really involved in budget negotiations with a minority government, where you can win a lot if you play your cards right, the Liberals instead decided to stand aside from that process, and decided from the outset that they were going to oppose budgets,” she said.
“For the islands in particular that struck me as a lost opportunity.
“I think for the islands to have somebody like Tom who would get actively involved in that process and try to get wins for the islands would be hugely positive.
“We have been making changes and positive improvements such as the 50 per cent reduction in air fares, 20 per cent off ferry fares, and the additional money to the council.
“There has been an open door to Shetland’s elected representatives throughout the time we have been in government, they just haven’t chosen to push at that door as hard as perhaps they could and should have done.”
Sturgeon added that she was “slightly restricted” on how much she could say about external ferry links because the tender for the new eight year long contract is still live.
An announcement was initially expected in early August, but due to an ongoing state aid complaint from Pentland Ferries as well as the Shetland by-election, it looks as though the outcome of the tender process is likely not to be known before September, just one month ahead of the new arrangements commencing.
Wills, meanwhile, has been making a number of pledges he wants to deliver over a 18-month period should he be elected on 29 August, such as the removal of car parking charges at Sumburgh Airport, tackling cabin prices on the lifeline ferry service, or finding a way forward on the internal ferry funding.
He acknowledged that all these issues require urgent attention, and added: “I agree with most of what [SIC councillor and independent by-election candidate] Ryan Thomson is saying on this issue; I just think we will be more likely to get that done if we have a representative inside the party that forms the government.
“I want to represent Shetland inside the government rather than being the government voice up here.”
Acknowledging that the Scottish Government does not have unlimited pots of money, Sturgeon said: “If Tom is being elected at the end of the month, then in pretty short order we will sit down with him and see how we can implement his pledges.
“I think he is right to effectively be throwing down the gauntlet to the SNP government about the improvements he wants to see made.”
And she expressed “sympathy with people who are frustrated with the airport car parking charges” but, adding a word of caution, said it wasn’t quite as easy for the government to get involved as the opposition parties make it look.
“HIAL operates independently of government,” the first minister said.
“That is a separation that we have to respect in order that we can safely continue to subsidise and fund HIAL’s operations.
“It is not as straightforward as people understandably would like it to be for the government simply to intervene and instruct things to happen.
“That said, it is one of those things that we continue to have discussions about and I will be listening carefully to what Tom has to say on this.”
With regards to the other HIAL related issue – the ongoing industrial action by air traffic controllers – the first minister was upbeat that a solution could be found soon.
While stressing that HIAL was “operationally independent” from the government, she said: “Discussions and negotiations are ongoing, and I am optimistic that we might get a settlement over the next short period and that we will avoid any more industrial action, but I think it is important to respect the space for those discussions to continue.”
There were smiles all round when the ‘independence question’ question was asked – or rather the absence of Scottish independence being mentioned in the ongoing campaign.
“People know that we are the party that supports independence,” Wills said, “but this election is not a referendum on independence, it is an election for Shetland to choose a representative for the Scottish Parliament.”
Sturgeon added: “I don’t think there is anybody in Scotland alive today, including in Shetland, who don’t know that the SNP wants independence, and the case for independence given what is happening with Brexit is becoming more compelling and stronger.”
“So I don’t think we are hiding anything from anybody.”
There are ten candidates contesting the Shetland by-election on 29 August.
They are in alphabetical order: Johan Adamson (Scottish Labour), Brydon Goodlad (Scottish Conservatives), Stuart Martin (UKIP), Debra Nicolson (Scottish Greens), Ian Scott (independent), Michael Stout (independent), Peter Tait (independent), Ryan Thomson (independent), Tom Wills (SNP) and Beatrice Wishart (Scottish Liberal Democrats).
Read more about all ten candidates at our special Shetland by-election page at: https://www.shetnews.co.uk/category/features/election-2019/