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Community / Autonomy ‘action’ group picking up interest ahead of inaugural meeting

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A GRASSROOTS group pushing for greater autonomy for Shetland says it is gaining momentum ahead of its first meeting next month.

Shetland Autonomy Action Team started as a Facebook page in late 2020 but in recent months activity has picked up. A discussion page can be found here.

It comes after councillors voted to explore ways of achieving financial and political self-determination in 2020 amid frustration with the hand being dealt by government.

Whilst the decision was followed by a “virtual summit” with experts and the public – and a letter from then prime minister Boris Johnson too – there has been no concrete progress on the topic.

Boris Johnson responds to letter on Shetland self-determination – and hopes to visit isles this year

But the Shetland Autonomy Action Team is due to meet in person for the first time at the St Magnus Church at Greenfield Place in Lerwick at 7pm on 21 December.

The group’s Facebook page moderator James Paton said the group was first set up to broaden and “develop the discussion amongst the wider public with a view to developing support for, and positions on, enhanced Shetland autonomy”.

He said there has been “rapid increase” recently in the number of people on the page, with individuals previously with former group Wir Shetland among those getting involved.

Arlene Robertson, who was a driving force behind recent fishing protests in Lerwick, is signed on as a co-moderator, while Scott Nicolson is also involved.

When asked what the group hopes to achieve, Paton said: “We aim to support and drive the council’s current policy position, adopted in 2020, reasserted by elected members after the 2022 local elections, in favour of greater autonomy to enable the council and community to take this forward to Westminster and Holyrood.”

He said the aim is to enable this to be done with the “backing of the Shetland people, by ensuring a soundly researched and finessed case for improved effective and efficient modern local democracy, with greatly enhanced local involvement and accountability, as well as policy and fiscal flexibility”.

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Robertson added that the action team “hopes to gain more members for the journey who are willing to explore the subject and help us gauge interest initially”.

Paton criticised the level of support given by governments to rural and island development, and suggested the “Brexit agenda” has failed to deliver the promised benefits to the fishing industry.

He also said the group will “determine and push itself”.

“It is by its nature collegiate and consultative requiring administration rather than leaderships in the traditional sense,” Paton added.

“A full-time policy-making, finance raising, empowered body is needed to bring in the cultural change needed to meet local governance and service delivery needs.

“With this will bring enhanced performance and efficiencies through improved local accountability and responsiveness, with much more powers being similarly devolved to more autonomous and powerful community councils.

“Autonomy brings the substantive cultural change to bring Shetland out of the doldrums.”

The vote in the council chamber back in 2020 was 18-2 in favour of pursuing self-determination, with only councillors Stephen Leask and Ian Scott going against the motion.

Speaking this week Leask said he felt the idea of Shetland autonomy would be better served under a devolved government in Holyrood or an independent Scotland.

He also described the council’s self-determination push in 2020 as a “vanity project”.

“I couldn’t vote on something that had so little information,” Leask said.

The Lerwick North and Bressay member also said he felt the “mainstream” political parties only paid “lip service” to the self-determination proposal after it was voted through.

He also suggested the Shetland Movement, the pressure group created in the 1970s, went through the “proper route” – the ballot box.

Leask also felt that any autonomy group is unlikely to succeed if they are a “coalition of different political ideals” – predicting that the new group could be “doomed for failure”.

It all comes after the Supreme Court ruled this week that a second Scottish independence referendum cannot be held without the permission of Westminster.

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