SCOTTISH finance secretary Derek Mackay has insisted that Northern Isles MSPs Tavish Scott and Liam McArthur had little influence on the budget setting process that secured an additional £10.5 million of annual funding for the Shetland and Orkney internal ferry services.
Speaking to Shetland News ahead of his visit to Shetland on Thursday in support of local SNP candidate Tom Wills, Mackay said he had managed to acquire enough votes to get the 2018/19 budget through parliament before the two Lib Dem MSPs came on board.
This version of events, however, is strongly disputed by Orkney MSP Liam McArthur.
Over recent weeks the question how and to what extent Scott and McArthur engaged – and voted – in the budget setting process has become a key issue in the current by-election campaign.
On Thursday Lib Dem candidate Beatrice Wishart demanded an apology from Maree Todd, the minister for children and young people, after she said in a letter to Shetland News that “for the last three years, the LibDems have refused to take part in any budget talks whatsoever with the Scottish Government”.
Wishart said: “This was a slur on Tavish Scott’s reputation and track record for Shetland. Over 20 years he has worked constructively with ministers of all political colours including the SNP.”
Mackay said it was a “matter of fact” that the two Northern Isles MSPs decided to vote for the budget when a majority had already been secured with the help of the Scottish Greens.
“The history is that I acquired enough votes to get the budget through the parliament and wasn’t given a guarantee that I would get support of Tavish and Liam at stage one of the budget process,” he said.
“They ultimately did vote for the budget but that was after I had already decided to put £10.5 million of extra funding for the internal ferries in the budget.
“Of the three budgets I have had passed through parliament, they [Scott and McArthur] voted for one budget, in the most recent budget in which that extra funding is continued, the Liberal Democrats did not vote for.”
Mackay continued by saying that Shetland’s interests were “caught up” in the fundamental differences between the two parties over the question of Scottish independence.
“It has been the case that the Liberal Democrats’ official position has pretty much been that unless I change the constitutional position, they would not vote for the budget,” the minister said.
Asked if Shetland could expect the full £7.9 million Shetland Islands Council has asked for should islanders vote for the SNP candidate, Mackay said he was not prepared to set out Scotland’s budget in this interview.
But he added: “Do I think that Shetland’s hand will be strengthened by the election of Tom Wills? Yes I do. And do I believe there will be further progress on the internal ferries issue with Tom Wills as MSP? Yes I do.”
Responding to Mackay’s recollection of events, McArthur said the finance secretary “conveniently misses out the whole build up to the 2018 budget”.
“Tavish Scott and I spent months demanding that the Scottish Government honour the promises it had made (including Derek Mackay himself when he was transport minister), “ he said.
“In December 2017, we used our parliamentary time to secure a debate on fair ferry funding, and persuaded parliament to vote for the government to honour its commitment.
“Derek Mackay can say what he likes about the chronology, but the fact is that fair ferry funding wouldn’t have been in that budget but for the efforts of myself, Tavish and the Lib Dems.”
Meanwhile, independent candidate and chair of Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) environment and transport committee in addition the islands’ transport partnership ZetTrans, Ryan Thomson, said the question of fair ferry funding had become the victim of political point scoring.
“I am heavily involved in detailed work and discussions around obtaining funding for our internal ferries, and discussions are ongoing between our working group at the SIC and the government on a regular basis,” he said.
“Meetings continue at political level. It is clear, however, that Shetland has been a victim of political games between the Lib Dems and the SNP. We have yet to receive full and fair funding for our ferries and both mainland based parties are culpable.
“Last year, the Liberal Democrats refused to enter into negotiations with the Scottish Government until the SNP took independence off the table. Party before Shetland, and Shetland suffers.”
He added: “That is why an independent MSP, who can work with the government in Shetland’s best interest but be free to campaign against any decisions the government may make that might damage us, would bring major benefits to our islands.”
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/