ALEX Salmond’s plans for independence have suffered a unexpected setback with the emergence of a bid to bring home rule to oil-rich Orkney and Shetland.
Politicians on the islands are in discussions about how to achieve a new constitutional settlement that would deliver more powers to the Northern Isles and allow them to capitalise on the lucrative oil and gas reserves in their waters.
Any siphoning off of oil revenues would impact on the SNP’s plans for independence, which are based on Scotland taking up to £57 billion in tax revenue from the North Sea by 2018.
Shetland and Orkney are looking at using their share of the oil to negotiate the transfer of powers from the rest of the Scotland and the UK, regardless of the referendum result.
One model being explored is setting themselves up as a self-governing crown dependency like the Isle of Man.
Shetland Islands Council last week held a seminar looking at options for constitutional change as Scotland builds up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The issue is to be raised with SNP ministers when they travel to the archipelago next week.
The date of next year’s independence referendum is set to be confirmed by the Scottish Government this week.
The SNP administration will seek to make a statement in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, which will include First Minister Alex Salmond telling MSPs the planned date.
Yesterday, Shetland’s MSP Tavish Scott used a speech at the Lib Dem conference in Dundee to say it was “time to seize the opportunity of Island home rule”, proclaiming: “It’s not your oil Alex, it’s wirs.” The party’s former Scottish leader argued that Orkney and Shetland should lobby for more powers at a time when Scotland as a whole is debating the constitution.
“We are not going to be told what to do by the SNP. Nor by any other government,” said Scott. “We don’t want more centralising, know-it-all, top-down nationalism. This SNP government couldn’t care less about the outer extremities of the country.”
Lib Dem activists unanimously passed a motion proposed by Scott and backed by the Orkney MSP Liam McArthur that the islands should have a separate right to self-determination.
Scott said: “This debate is about a simple theme – that those who care most about the future of the Northern Isles are those who live there and they should decide their future. You may recognise that mantra, and if it is good enough for Salmond and Sturgeon, it is certainly right for Scott and McArthur.”
Scott said his preferred model would be that Shetland and Orkney could become a “crown dependency” run like the Isle of Man, which is a self-governing territory with its own parliament outside the UK.
Scott said that the amount of energy reserves that could be claimed by the islands would be subject to negotiation. According to Scott, the most optimistic estimates of the Northern Isles’ North Sea oil entitlement suggest that 67 per cent of reserves lie within Shetland’s coastal waters.
“Two thirds of the North Sea and west of Shetland reserves are in Shetland’s coastal waters. The Northern Isles don’t need nationalists negotiating Scotland’s oil share. We have plenty of our own leverage,” Scott said.
On Monday last week, Shetland Isles Council held a seminar which looked at the islands’ “constitutional status” with a view to coming to a position on its aims for the future. The seminar also looked at the possibility of Orkney and Shetland working with the Western Isles in order to achieve the best deal for Scotland’s islands.
Malcolm Bell, an independent councillor and the convener of Shetland Council, said the issue would be raised a week tomorrow when Finance Secretary John Swinney visits Lerwick for the Convention of Highlands and Islands.
“The current government is very centralised. It’s all very well to devolve power a few hundred miles from London to Edinburgh, but that’s no good for us if it then stops at Edinburgh. Powers need to be pushed out,” said Bell.
The bid has echoes of the Orkney and Shetland Movement of the 1980s, which saw an electoral coalition formed for the 1987 General Election. Back then, the SNP agreed to stand aside for the movement’s candidate.
Yesterday, an SNP spokesman said: “Shetland and Orkney are an important and valued part of Scotland and that will remain the case with independence. The SNP has always been open to greater autonomy for the Northern Isles in an independent Scotland.
“We are confident that Orkney and Shetland will vote Yes to Scottish independence along with the rest of the country in autumn 2014.”