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Election / SIC right to keep out of the Up Helly Aa debate, but change needed, candidates agree

Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2019. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

MOST council election candidates say they would like to see changes made so that women and girls can fully participate in Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa fire festivals, but agree that the issue is one for the committee to resolve and that Shetland Islands Council has no role in the debate.

It comes as equality campaign group Up Helly Aa for Aa contacted all 35 candidates inviting them to sign a pledge encouraging both sides of the controversial issue to start talking in a bid to find a consensus and, more generally, promote inclusion across the SIC.

In a covering message to candidates, the group said: “Allowing the use of council facilities for a community event that discriminates against half of our community, the holding of a civic reception, and ordering a public holiday to celebrate an event that openly discriminates, is not good practice in a time where we should be enabling equality and ending discrimination.”

Prior to knowing about this particular pledge Shetland News had contacted candidates with a number of questions on a wide range of topics, including some on equality, inclusion and how to represent diversity.

One of the questions we specifically asked was whether the SIC was right to say that the question over equal access to Lerwick’s Up Helly Aa was not one for them to get involved in.

It needs to be pointed out that campaigners for the inclusion of women and girls in the two Lerwick Up Helly Aas have never called on the SIC to rule, decide or dictate, but simply to facilitate talks between both sides.

Here is what some of the candidates had to say (in no particular order):

Brian Nugent, Sovereignty candidate in the Shetland Central ward, said it was clear to him that this was a decision for the Up Helly Aa committee.

“The women of Lerwick/Shetland are the backbone of Up Helly Aa, without them the halls could not operate, the whole process would collapse. If the women of Lerwick/Shetland are sufficiently against Up Helly Aa, they can withdraw their labour.

“A few politically correct people running a campaign on this issue seems like mischief making to me.”

Papa Stour man Andrew Holt, standing as an independent in the Shetland West ward, however thinks “a day of reckoning will have to come on this one”.

“Equality legislation, the private status of the Up Helly Aa committee and the responsibilities of the council as a public body will need to be resolved,” he said.

Staying out west, independent candidate Ian Tinkler described the tradition of not including women in the Lerwick procession as “daft” and “outdated” but agreed that the council has no right to get involved.

He said he believes in “absolute gender equality” and reminds the organisers that “Viking culture included women warriors”.

Shetland South independent candidate Bryan Peterson is convinced that “change will come, but it must come from within the Lerwick Up Helly Aa community”.

A former Lerwick junior jarl and grandson to former Lerwick jarl Willie Peterson (1970), he says he “empathises with both sides of the issue”.

“Discussion is all too often combative and divisive, and many folk feel that as pressure to change increases, the more inclined they are to defend the status quo. There needs to be open-minded, mutually respectful, and consolidatory conversation if progress is to be made,” Peterson said.

Meanwhile in Lerwick, Lerwick North and Bressay candidate Stephen Leask is convinced that “if there is change it will come from within,” while Lerwick South candidate Shayne McLeod points out that “the Lerwick Up Helly Aa is run by a committee that organise the festival and not the SIC”.

Also standing again in the Lerwick South ward is Amanda Hawick who says she is keen to hear people’s views on the matter as she continues to canvas in the ward.

“I am very aware that Up Helly Aa is a very important cultural event for Shetland and I would want to see things progress,” she told Shetland News.

Fellow candidate for one of the Lerwick South seats Peter Coleman believes that more discussions on the subject are needed.

“I believe it’s under review by the committee,” he said. “I’ve gone on record as saying I think women should be included; let’s wait to see what they come back with.”

Meanwhile Shetland South SNP candidate Robbie McGregor is clear that it is for the Lerwick committee to discuss the issue.

And he added: “I would point out that equal access is permitted to the South Mainland’s superb fire festival, and all are welcome to participate.”

How all this will play out should the new council decide to elect – for the first time – a female convener who will then have to preside over the civic reception in Lerwick Town Hall remains unclear.

Labour man Tom Morton, who will be representing Shetland North for the next five years, notes that the “Lerwick Up Helly Aa is crucial to the identity of the isles and the way Shetland is perceived internationally”.

“Its value must be maintained but that does not mean it cannot change and become more inclusive,” he said.