Orcadian Column, 13 July 2023

13 Jul 2023

By strange coincidence, I find myself spending the week surrounded by people from Crown Dependencies, Overseas Territories and a smattering of autonomous Nordic islands. In the context of the recent vote by OIC, the International Island Games represents a sort of ‘supermarket sweep’ of constitutional options.

Certainly events in Orkney have not gone unnoticed by those gathering in sun-kissed Guernsey for the 19th Island Games. There has been a mixture of amusement, bemusement and plenty of gentle leg-pulling, as you might expect at the self-styled Friendly Games.

I’ll return to Guernsey shortly, but sticking for now with last week’s Council vote, if the intention was to gain media and public attention, it’s fair to say it surpassed all expectations. Talk of re-joining Norway provided a tempting hook for a classic ‘bait and switch’ manoeuvre. The question is, what next?

Well, first of all, quite a bit of work for OIC officials. The concern must be that within an organisation already having to cope with cuts in Scottish Government funding, hefty workload pressures and staff vacancies in almost every department, this is potentially more than a headache. Whatever external help might be available, it’s safe to assume that none will be forthcoming from either Scottish or UK Government.

The impact on future relations with the latter is unknown, but it’s clear neither has been impressed. Other hard-pressed local authorities will also be watching closely for any evidence that OIC is being ‘rewarded’ for issuing threats to central government.

That said, it’s absolutely true that Orkney has been treated unfairly, from the failure to introduce RET on Pentland Firth routes to an unwillingness by Scottish Ministers to engage meaningfully on the question of ferry replacement or the inequities in relative island authority funding. Yet, these are matters that can and should be resolved without taking a constitutional leap in the dark. If nothing else, the endless debates over Brexit and independence have taught us that talk of ‘taking back control’ seldom lead to the sunlit uplands promised.

And on the subject of sunlit uplands, let’s get back to Guernsey. The main town, St Peter’s Port is a stunning setting, although most streets seem to be an energy-sapping mix of the Clay Loan and Kyber Pass.

With Orkney set to host the next Games in 2025, this week’s multi-sport competition has taken on extra significance. It’s offered an ideal opportunity for athletes to get a taste of what’s involved at this level. As importantly, it’s allowed the team responsible for organising Orkney 2025 to get a proper look ‘under the bonnet’ at the mechanics of putting on a successful Games. Accommodation, transport, catering, volunteers, officiating are all crucial to the success of an event and giving athletes, coaches and spectators the best possible experience.

On the sporting front, Orkney has entered relatively young squads in swimming, athletics, badminton and men’s football. All have performed superbly, gaining invaluable experience for the home games in two years’ time. I’ve particularly enjoyed my ‘proud uncle’ moment, with Emily’s outstanding achievements on the track.

And while Orkney’s bowlers, archers and shooters would never claim to be in the first flush of youth, they have excelled too, winning medals and respect in their various disciplines. In short, success all round.

Each Games are different, of course, but all reflect the same ethos. Competition is undoubtedly fierce but friendships between fellow islanders are valued more highly than silverware.

Guernsey is hosting for the third time and local residents could not have been more welcoming. However, the sheer extent of the volunteer effort required to host a Games should not be underestimated.  I have absolutely no doubt that Orkney will put on a tremendous spectacle and a unique Games, but it will require a genuine community-scale commitment.

Many people in Orkney are already involved, or have registered their interest in playing a part in the 2025 Games. I’d encourage you to consider doing likewise, even if you’re not sure what you might do. There will be roles for everyone in what should be an experience of a lifetime. If you don’t believe me, just ask any Shetlander who was involved in their Games back in 2005. So, bring it on!