Martyn McLaughlin: Calls for Shetland devolution

‘WIR Shetland’ movement opens a can of worms for Scottish constitutional settlement, finds Martyn McLaughlin

The people of Shetland are proud of their distinctive Viking heritage. Now they could set a fire under the Scottish constitutional settlement. Picture: Getty
The people of Shetland are proud of their distinctive Viking heritage. Now they could set a fire under the Scottish constitutional settlement. Picture: Getty
The people of Shetland are proud of their distinctive Viking heritage. Now they could set a fire under the Scottish constitutional settlement. Picture: Getty

THE unpredictable nature of Shetland weather means that air passengers bound for the archipelago’s outlying communities often have time to kill in Tingwall Airport. With its modest departure lounge that resembles a dentist’s waiting room –a cluster of chairs circled around well-thumbed back issues of National Geographic and The Week – it does not take long for conversations to strike up.

One blustery morning a few months back, I got chatting with an elderly Foula resident as I helped lug his suitcases in from the smirr. “Have you been anywhere nice on holiday?” I asked. He nodded, replying: “Yes, I was down in Scotland.”

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Anyone familiar with life in the wee box that once partitioned the Northern Isles from the rest of the country during weather forecasts will appreciate his sense of geography. Identity and belonging are storied and complex issues in Shetland. Anyone who has witnessed the spectacle of Up Helly Aa will know geography, heritage and history have combined to create a place sure of itself, yet forever willing to reflect on its relationship with Scotland, Britain and Europe.

Events in recent weeks make for an instructive example. While the rest of the country considers the prospect and timeframe of a second independence referendum, its northernmost communities are contemplating their own constitutional future.

A new organisation pushing for autonomy, Wir Shetland, held its inaugural meeting earlier this month, where its leading lights argued that were the islands to become a British overseas territory similar to the Falklands, Shetland would be at least £172 million a year better off. The calculation is based on tax gains from companies and offshore and oil and gas workers, as well as a substantial income from expanded fishing territories. The accuracy of the forecast is uncertain, but the multi-party campaign group’s predictions assume some seismic political shifts, not least Shetland’s withdrawal from the EU.

Deciding upon the exact genesis of the self-determination argument in Shetland depends on your reach of history. A hardcore regard 1667’s Treaty of Breda as unfinished business; an even smaller minority continue to contest the 1469 dowry, which saw the archipelago mortgaged to Scotland in lieu of the skint King Christian’s dowry for the marriage of his daughter, Margaret, to James III.

Whatever its origins, the cause found new converts in the latter half of the 20th century, none more so than when a delegation from the then Zetland County Council travelled to the Faroes and were taken aback at the health of its economy, 14 years after it became an autonomous region of Denmark via the 1948 Home Rule Act.

In tandem with the oil boom that made Shetland one of the most prosperous regions in Britain, the growing belief in the right to self-determination led to the formation of the Shetland Movement, the first political organisation to be established in the islands independently of the mainstream parties.

Under a 1980 plan drawn by Sandy Cluness, a future convener of Shetland Islands Council, fiscal independence would be made possible by an assumed contribution of rates on Sullom Voe by the oil industry of £20m, with the system of governance responsible to a parliament known as the Althing.

Its high point came in the 1987 general election when, in coalition with a sister group in Orkney, the group’s candidate, John Goodlad, won 3,095 votes. It was not enough to trouble the incumbent, Jim Wallace, but when you consider how his 14.5 per cent share compares to this year’s general election – Labour and the Conservatives could muster just 3 per cent more between them – it is clear the group enjoyed significant influence.

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Thirty years on, can history repeat itself? Wir Shetland’s financial proposals have yet to be fleshed out and it remains unclear whether it will commit to fielding candidates for the Holyrood elections. The immediate priority, it says, is to engage with parties at a local authority and parliamentary level. Given turnout for its launch numbered around 60 people, many question the group’s clout, but it is worth casting an eye over its fledgling membership, which includes three of Shetland’s 22 councillors.

Its formation comes at an intriguing time. The Scottish Government is consulting over additional powers for island authorities in a new Islands Bill, in part a response to the Our Islands, Our Future campaign waged by councils in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles. It is a welcome and overdue response, especially when you consider how the recommendations of the UK government’s Montgomery committee in 1984 were ignored. Instead, Shetland has relied on the industry and vision of individuals, such as the private member’s bill from Jo Grimond which led to the influential Zetland County Council Act.

Wir Scotland remains unconvinced by the latest tripartite effort, dismissing it a “please sir, can we have some more” approach and describing the government’s consultation as a ploy to “kick the can down the road” until after next year’s Holyrood election.

This emotional response gets the heart of the argument. In the same way many in the central belt feel dislocated from Westminster, a considerable number of Shetlanders and Orcadians lament a sense of disconnect with Edinburgh. Yet that should not be mistaken as a desire for autonomy. Nor is the feeling of isolation the preserve of island communities, given the way Glasgow City Council and other authorities rail against centralisation.

It is right to push for extra powers but if history is a reliable guide, Wir Scotland has its work cut out to convince folk on the auld rock to go that one step further. As an old Shetland proverb states, never baal oot da dirty water afore da clean comes in.