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The Highland Line: The Lerwick Declaration is a win-win for our island communities

Opponents of the Scottish Government were quick to try to pour coldish water on the "Lerwick Declaration" that a new ministerial working group would be set up to look at giving the three islands councils more powers.

But that shouldn't detract from the fine political game the local authorities' leaders have been playing, and which looks as though it could actually deliver something concrete.

It was in March that the independent councils of Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles announced they were going to launch a  campaign seeking significant new powers following the 2014 referendum - regardless of the result.

They weren't threatening to break away in the case of independence. Their calculation was that whether Scotland voted yes or no, one way or another new powers would be coming to Holyrood and they wanted some for themselves.

They had been examining similar authorities on the Isle of Man and the Faroe Islands and are preparing a "menu of interests" to present to both the pro-independence and pro-union campaigns to establish which offers greater control of their own island affairs and resources.

The menu is likely to include:

Control of the sea bed around the islands, allowing revenues currently paid to the Crown Estate to be channelled towards local needs.

New grid connections to the Scottish mainland to allow world-class wave, tidal and wind energy resources to generate maximum benefits for the islands.

New fiscal arrangements to allow the islands to benefit more directly from the harvesting of local resources, including renewable energy and fisheries.

Clear recognition of the status of the three island groups in the new Scottish Constitutional Settlement and within the European Governance Framework.

A week or so ago they asked  First Minister Alex Salmond, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to respond to a list of questions about life after the independence referendum.

Ed Miliband, the UK Labour leader, was also been asked to join the debate as were the leaders of the opposition parties at Holyrood.

They have maintained absolute neutrality on the independence issue despite the desire of some to get Gary Robinson, Shetland Islands Council's leader, in particular, to say that his community would declare a UDI themselves in the event of a yes vote, and take much of the oil with them.

But the Orkney and Shetland of today are not willing to be defined by their clear but historical rejection of devolution in the 1979 referendum more than 30 years later.

Orkney Islands Council convener Steven Heddle and the Western Isles' Angus Campbell have also stuck to the line that they are only interested in a dialogue with both sides of the debate about the future. This week's meeting of the Scottish cabinet in Shetland provided them with the perfect opportunity to promote their "Our Islands, Our Future" campaign.

Alex Salmond was ready. He said "We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future, the essence of self-determination, therefore we support subsidiarity and local decision making. It follows, therefore, that any government committed to that policy should listen to the views expressed across all of Scotland - as we are doing here in Lerwick and as we are doing in supporting greater community land ownership and the forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill."

And Finance Secretary John Swinney announced how the Scottish would demonstrate its commitment to that goal:

"Scotland's island communities are an invaluable source of energy, creativity and talent. They are made up of people with rich and diverse backgrounds who all contribute to making Scotland as a nation flourish. One of the great advantages of the independence debate is the opportunity to reflect on the sort of Scotland we wish to see.

"Shetland, Orkney and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar have already taken a lead in doing that. 'Our Islands, Our Future' is an important initiative which we discussed at Cabinet this morning and I am pleased to confirm that the Scottish Government has agreed in principle, jointly with campaign leaders from the three island authorities, to convene a new ministerial working group to consider the issues it raises."

Some will see it as a principled response, others a cynical move. But it was good politics to be the first party to respond and for Alex Salmond to publicly state he was taking the islanders' aspirations seriously.

Gary Robinson immediately said "this has to be seen as a positive development", while  Steven Heddle said "The Ministerial Working Group is a very positive reaction from the Scottish Government."

And their attention is now turning to the UK Government and the SNP's opponents as Angus Campbell made clear:

"This demonstrates that the detailed and professional case we have made is recognised at Scottish Government level. It also opens up the opportunity for discussion on what can be embedded in future legislation to ensure the three island groups are given the tools to improve the well being of their areas and contribute more to national prosperity. We now look forward to a similar engagement with the UK Government."

Of course the UK Government could completely outflank the SNP by handing over the Crown Estate's seabed claims to the islands, but that is not going to happen when the Tories are in power, albeit shared power. The Liberal Democrats, and Danny Alexander in particular, managed to deliver the coastal communities fund from Crown Estate revenues. But that's as far as it is likely to go.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to see what the Better Together campaign can say. They are not a party seeking to form a government. So it will be up to the individual parties to come up with something for the islands. Labour's devolution commission has already backed greater role for local authorities including  some of the Crown Estate revenues. But now the party will be under pressure to say more specifically about the islands councils. At the same time, the ministerial working party has got to give something to the islands.

There is a clear and strong case for Argyll and Bute to be involved because it is the local authority which responsible for the largest number of inhabited islands - 25 - although it also has has a big chunk of the mainland.

All in all it really is difficult to see how the islands can lose out of this. 
 

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