Alex Salmond has pledged to “boost economic returns” to Scotland’s islands amid calls for greater autonomy and even their own referendums on independence after a Yes vote.
A Scottish cabinet meeting which is due to take place in Stornoway on Wednesday comes as the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland push for greater autonomy from Edinburgh as part of the Our Islands, Our Future campaign.
Representatives from the group held three days of talks with UK ministers on subjects including energy, better representation in Europe, the powers of the Crown Estate and special consideration from the government during policy development.
Similar talks have already been held with the Scottish Government and the First Minister said this week’s meeting on Lewis will highlight the “valuable economic and cultural contribution made by Scotland’s island communities”.
He added: “We will continue to work with those communities to identify additional measures to help support that contribution.”
Support for the Gaelic language, measures to support renewable energy investment, and assistance for the islands tourism industry will be among the measures that ministers will highlight.
Mr Salmond said yesterday: “This government is providing support to the islands through infrastructure investment, improving access to wider Scottish, EU and international markets.
“And in terms of tourism, the introduction of the Road Equivalent Tariff (RET), saw visitor numbers to Western Isles, Coll and Tiree increase by 30,000 every year following its launch in 2008.
“While tourism is of vital importance to island economies, there are many other areas where we are working with the islands to make the most of their natural resources, including renewable energy, engineering, food and drink, and biotechnology.
“Not only that, but we are helping to safeguard the cultural identity of the islands through investment and support for the Gaelic language.”
The Scottish Government has already established an Island Areas Ministerial Working Group, chaired by local government minister Derek MacKay, which is tasked with developing a prospectus outlining opportunities for island communities in light of the referendum.
Mr Salmond added: “The Scottish Government will continue to work with our island communities to make the most of their unrivalled natural economic and cultural assets, supporting current and future generations of islanders.”
Our Islands, Our Future wants to see the special position and needs of the UK’s three largest island groups fully taken into account in the new constitutional arrangements for Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum.
All three of the island groups will be seeking additional powers and resources to shape their own destinies.
Among the areas which have been earmarked by the campaign are control of the sea bed around the islands, allowing revenues currently paid to the Crown Estate to be channelled into local needs.
They also want so see new grid connections to the Scottish mainland to allow renewable energy sources such as wave, tidal and wind farms to generate maximum benefits for the islands.
More control is also being demanded over the money generated from these new energy sources, as well as from other areas such as fishing.
A clear recognition of the status of the three island groups should also be enshrined in the new Scottish Constitutional Settlement and within the European Governance Framework.
Labour has already pledged to hand more power to the islands, after shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran held talks with Our Islands Our Future earlier this month.
This will include power to develop renewable energy resources, to tackle unemployment, to take more control of economic development and to give the “maximum possible power” over the Crown Estates.
Ms Curran added that a future Labour UK government would maintain the Islands Desk in the Scotland Office and would also hold twice-yearly summits with the island council leaders.
“The islands may be remote, but they shouldn’t be remote from the business of the UK government,” she said.
MSPs will consider a call to seek independence for the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney later this year.
Campaigners have lodged a petition at the Holyrood parliament calling on the Scottish Government to hold three separate ballots in each of the island groups on Thursday 25 September – one week after the Scottish independence referendum.
If the vote is against independence, the follow-up ballot would be to determine if each island is to become an independent country or to remain within Scotland.
In the event of a Yes vote in the referendum on Scottish independence, the islanders would be asked if they wish to stay in the UK.
The First Minister unveiled the “Lerwick Declaration” as his cabinet met in Lerwick last summer, which included a commitment from the SNP to examining how the islands can get more autonomy.
l The prospect of the Conservatives being in government at Westminster following the 2015 general election would make almost half of Scots likely to vote for independence in the referendum, according to a poll.
A Panelbase study commissioned by the Yes Scotland campaign found that 48 per cent of those questioned would be very or quite likely to back independence in September if they felt next year’s UK election would result in a Conservative-led government, or another Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.
Almost two in five, 38 per cent, said they would be unlikely to vote for independence if that were the case. Asked the same question about a Labour-led government, respondents were roughly evenly split.
JOBS AT RISK
SCOTLAND’s defence industry is a success story that would be put at risk by leaving the UK, according to pro-Union campaigners.
Former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, will today state the “positive defence case for staying in the UK” on a visit to Walker Precision Engineering in the east end of Glasgow with shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker.
Mr Darling said that for thousands of people in places such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and Inverclyde, the UK’s defence industry is a major source of jobs and economic security.
He said: “It’s a great success story and has kept generations of families in work for many years. Leaving the UK would put that at risk.
“As part of the UK we can have the best of both worlds – a strong Scottish Parliament, with the guarantee of more powers, backed up by the strength, security and stability of being part of the larger UK.”