Orcadian Column, 1 Feb 2024

1 Feb 2024

The long wait for an Orkney Sports Award continues for me and Robbie Fraser after last Friday’s ceremony in the Orkney Theatre. Despite that disappointment, the awards remain one of my favourite events of the year: a genuine celebration of achievement, talent, dedication and, in the case of volunteers, coaches and officials, real selflessness.

Long distance runner, Aly Kemp proved a popular and worthy winner of the Sportsperson of the Year award after her exploits at the Guernsey Island Games last summer, where she medalled in the 10,000m and came agonisingly close to a repeat in the half-marathon. For the other nominees on an exceptionally strong, all-female shortlist; netballer, Zara Flett and triathlete, Claire Rendall, it’s surely only a matter of time before they pick up the top award.

Indeed, all the categories were fiercely contested, if that’s the right expression for an occasion that is so mutually supportive. Swimmer, Eve Wood picked up the Young Sportsperson award, Orkney’s netballers enjoyed a highly successful evening, and the rugby club showed it’s in rude health. Further cause for future optimism was provided by Orkney’s young golfers, while Bashir Hasham was rewarded for his services to badminton, and Graham Johnston and Linda Low were inducted into the Hall of Fame for their exploits across an impressive array of different sports.

To be present in the Orkney Theatre on Friday was both inspiring and uplifting. Everything, in fact, that the ongoing UK Covid-19 Inquiry is not.

This week sees Nicola Sturgeon giving evidence. She has tough questions to answer, not least about her deletion of WhatsApp messages during the pandemic, despite her own assurances that a public inquiry would follow and that it would have access to all relevant information. Her repeated claim that government decisions were never taken via WhatsApp also now looks false.

During yet another uncomfortable week for her successor, Humza Yousaf appeared before the inquiry last Thursday, repeating the profuse apology he had offered parliament for the government’s serious mishandling of WhatsApp and other communications materials. Such are the failings on this score that Mr Yousaf has been forced to initiate an external review.

Increasingly, a picture of secrecy is emerging, whether in the deletion of messages in contravention of government policy or the absence of any formal minutes for meetings of Gold Command: the small group of senior Ministers and advisers, chaired by Nicola Sturgeon and tasked with overseeing the management of the government’s response to Covid. Such an ‘oversight’ is a clear breach of the ministerial code.

Last week’s evidence sessions involving Mr Yousaf and Nicola Sturgeon’s closest aide, Liz Lloyd were hugely revealing. They confirmed the former First Minister’s reluctance to consult widely in what National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch described as her “‘keep it small’ shenanigans”. Her initial zero Covid strategy appears to have been pursued against the advice of key experts, while her promise not to politicise the pandemic now looks to be shot through with holes.

I well recall at the time an understanding across the parties of the need to work differently, reflecting the seriousness of the crisis. Challenge and transparency were still essential, but there was a recognition of the need to suspend some of the more adversarial elements of party politics.

Yet, it now transpires that in June 2020, as the first Covid restrictions were being eased, the Sturgeon Cabinet “agreed that consideration should be given to restarting work on independence and a referendum with arguments reflecting experience of the coronavirus crisis”. From WhatsApp messages that escaped the ‘cull’, it appears the former First Minister and Ms Lloyd discussed manufacturing a ‘good old-fashioned rammy’ with the UK Government over the furlough scheme for ‘political reasons’. Hardly in keeping with the spirit of the times or undertakings given.

One year on from her sudden and unexpected resignation, and with an ongoing police investigation still looming ominously in the background, it is quite remarkable how spectacularly Nicola Sturgeon’s star has fallen. For many years, and until recently, she seemed a nailed-on certainty for every politician of the year award going. These days that seems about as likely as me and Robbie being inducted into the Orkney Sports Hall of Fame.