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Election / First minister shows support for fixed links as election campaign draws to a close

‘I think there is a strong case to be made for fixed links’, Nicola Sturgeon says – while she is also supportive of Shetland Islands Council’s desire to explore self-determination

First minister Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: SNP

“I THINK for the SNP this is probably the strongest position we’ve ever been in,” first minister Nicola Sturgeon claims when talking up the party’s chances in the Shetland constituency.

Gaining the Shetland seat, which has been painted in Lib Dem colours since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, has been on the party’s to-do list in recent years.

But despite throwing plenty of resources at the 2019 by-election, the party still lost to the Lib Dems with a gap of some 15 per cent.

By-election candidate Tom Wills is back to face up against old sparring partner Beatrice Wishart, who was voted in as Shetland’s MSP back in 2019.

Speaking exclusively to Shetland News, SNP leader Sturgeon said many people voted for the party for the first time in the by-election.

“Tom is a fantastic local candidate,” she said. “I think he’s worked really hard and developed and built up a lot of trust and authority on the issues that matter to people.”

But nationally, the SNP has been accused of not putting full focus on the recovery from the Covid pandemic by continuing to plot a future independence referendum.

Sturgeon said those critics “are just wrong”.

“I’ve been very clear that I support independence with every fibre of my being,” she said. “I’ve campaigned for it all of my life.

“But I think the priority for any first minister has to be on getting us out of the situation we’re in now.

“Once we are out of that though it really matters where decision making lies and I think it matters to all of Scotland to have the ability to take the decisions that determine what kind of recovery we have long-term, and what kind of country we’re recovering to become.”

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Locally the prospect of fixed links such between some of the isles – an idea backed by Shetland Islands Council – has been one recurring cross-party theme in the local campaign, with the likes of Unst, Yell and Whalsay pinpointed as areas potentially suitable for tunnels.

But the prohibitive cost means the council cannot do it alone.

When asked if it is realistic for Shetland Islands Council to hope for government funding for fixed links in the future, the first minister said: “I do think it is realistic in the future. I think there is a strong case to be made for fixed links.

“I don’t want to underplay the work that would have to be done to demonstrate and establish the feasibility of that, and to put the business cases for that. But I know it’s something Tom has been pushing locally, and if elected I’m pretty sure it’s something he will push pretty firmly.

“I would describe myself as not just open to it, but actually quite enthusiastic about seeing if we can make the case for that, and therefore to say is it realistic? (…) I think the answer is yes, very possibly I think it is.”

The council’s ageing inter-island ferry fleet is one the local authority’s biggest culprits when it comes to its carbon footprint.

With the Scottish Government aiming for the country to go ‘net zero’ by 2045, could supporting fixed links be a signal of intent in reducing emissions?

“Yes I do,” Sturgeon replied. “I think we’ve got work to do with the ferry fleet, and with ferries to decarbonise as much as possible. But I do think fixed links in the context of the transition to net zero, I think the case there becomes even stronger and it’s another aspect of the argument in favour.

“So for all of these reasons I do think the time is probably pretty ripe to have a serious look at that and give serious consideration. Undoubtedly that would have to start with feasibility work and studies, but I think that this is probably the time to get serious about doing that.”

Wills, who works for tidal energy company Nova Innovation, said there is “huge potential” for Shetland and its energy resources to lead the way in going net zero – potentially becoming carbon neutral before the rest of the country.

“I’m quite keen that we see a bit of a competition between different parts of Scotland to see who can get there first, because that will drive the process and accelerate the progress of the whole country,” Sturgeon added. “A bit of healthy, friendly competition here is actually a good thing.”

Nicola Sturgeon and Tom Wills speaking via Zoom on Monday.

Another local topic at play is the response to Shetland Islands Council’s desire to explore options for financial and political self-determination.

A key part of this push was frustration with decision-making affecting island life being undertaken in Edinburgh or Westminster.

“I want to see more powers devolved from Holyrood down to a local level,” Sturgeon said. “Obviously I want to see more powers come from Westminster to Holyrood as well, up to and including independence.

“But we’re the government that passed the islands bill. We want to see decentralisation of as much power and decision making to the islands as possible. We will be supportive of that in the years ahead.”

Wills said the islands act, which came into law in 2018, already provides a mechanism for more powers being devolved to islands.

“But as a community in Shetland we’ve yet to try and use it,” he said.

“So I think as a community we need to decide what we want, and my understanding is that the Scottish Government would be open to those sorts of requests once we have decided as community what it is we want to ask for.”

“There’s something a bit contradictory in saying the islands want more power, understandably so, and then have a government decide what more power it should be,” Sturgeon added.

“The islands act is all about empowering the islands, so I think it is important that the islands consider what it is that would work best for them, and then that request is made, and then you’ve got a very open minded government – I hope you’ll still have that open minded government after Thursday – that wants to see the islands act be used and become something that is dynamic and meaningful.”

HIAL should ‘absolutely’ consider islands impact assessment

Critics point to the centralisation of services like police and fire as local control slipping away under SNP power, and the latest issue is plans for the government-owned airport operator HIAL to bring air traffic control across the Highlands and Islands to Inverness.

Sturgeon has been pressed on the issue in the Scottish Parliament, and Shetland Islands Council recently agreed a motion calling for the project to be halted amid concern on the impact it would have on the isles as a whole – with a number of locally based jobs set to go south.

“What I would say on the specific issue is HIAL of course is government owned, but it’s run independently of government and then government does not interfere in the management decisions that HIAL takes,” the first minister said.

“The way it has to work to meet the requirements, and legal constraints means we can’t interfere in the management of it.

“HIAL in all of the decisions it takes should absolutely consider the islands impact assessment and make sure that is reflected in the decisions they take.”

Wills, meanwhile, is keen to see more control of local waters when it comes to fishing – something he says the islands act could potentially provide a platform for.

The UK and Norway’s recent failure to reach a fishing deal for the year ahead was effectively welcomed by local fishermen, but across the country it was criticised.

Sturgeon said there is a “discussion to be had” around the idea of more local control, and added that she understood the views of the local industry on the lack of a Norway deal.

But she said it “doesn’t augur well for how the UK Government is going to manage or prioritise fishing”.

“Overall the promises that were made to fishing in the run up to Brexit and the aftermath of Brexit have been shown to be pretty empty,” Sturgeon said.

“Even if the failure to agree a deal right now is seen to be beneficial for Shetland fishermen, it doesn’t send a very good signal about the priority that the UK Government attaches to fishing.

“It’s always going to be more important to Scotland than to the UK therefore a Scottish Government with fishing and fishing interests at heart is always going to be better placed to stand up for fishing.”

Politically, however, the last 12 months have been dominated by the response to the Covid pandemic.

Sturgeon’s communication during the year – including regular televised updates and Q&As with journalists – has been praised, but some of the government’s decision-making has left a sour taste for some Shetlanders who feel the isles have been placed under unnecessarily strict rules.

When asked if the restrictions placed on Shetland have been fair, the SNP leader said that “nothing about Covid has been fair”.

“It’s been horrendous for everybody – every part of the country and in fact in every country pretty much across the world,” she continued.

“Whatever balance we strike, it will never be perfect, in a deeply imperfect situation.

“But we’ve tried hard to get it right and I think with the islands, that has at times been particularly difficult, because at times we have recognised that there are particularly low levels of the virus, although all of the islands have had outbreaks and periods where Covid has been circulating pretty virulently. There’s been frequent reminders that we can’t be complacent about this.

“Of course when we come to hopefully two weeks today…the whole country goes down a level so we’ll see much more opening up, not just for the islands but across the country as a whole.

“But I appreciate how difficult it has been. It’s been difficult for everybody, but I think given some of the particular challenges and circumstances at times I guess it must have been even more difficult for people living in our islands.”

Shetland News will publish an interview with Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie tomorrow (Wednesday).

The Scottish Parliament elections take place on 6 May. There are six candidates contesting the Shetland seat. They are in alphabetical order: Martin Kerr (Labour), Brian Nugent (Restore Scotland); Peter Tait (Independent), Nick Tulloch (Conservatives), Tom Wills (SNP) and Beatrice Wishart (Liberal Democrats).

To find out more about all the candidates standing in the election, including those on the regional Highlands and Islands list, visit our Scottish Parliament election 2021 page here.

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