Orcadian 05/06/18

Some things are never easy to say, even when they need to be said. So let me quickly get it out of the way, with teeth firmly gritted: “Congratulations Shetland, you were worthy winners.”

After a weekend of sporting action that was high quality, high octane and accompanied at all times by a raucous soundtrack, Shetland’s young athletes deservedly came out on top against their Orkney counterparts to retain the Stuart Cup.  As emphatic as the margin of victory ultimately was, however, both sides could point to outstanding performances by competitors within their squads.  Time and again Junior Inter County records and personal bests were eclipsed in the pool as well as on the track and field.

In the team sports, Shetland’s footballers set a standard that Orkney will now need to match, while Orkney’s hockey and netball squads had the home crowd bouncing after both came back from early set-backs in their respective matches to secure exhilarating wins.  I’m no expert in either sport, but the atmosphere in the Picky arena as Orkney’s netballers stormed to victory in the final event is still enough to send a shiver up my spine. If this is netball, where do I sign up for a season ticket?

As engrossing as the sporting competition undoubtedly was, however, something shone through even more strongly over the course of the weekend.  Jim and Avril Cromarty, who presented the Stuart Cup to the winning Shetland captains, summed it up perfectly when talking of the lifeline friendships that the Junior Inter County seeds, and the bonds it helps strengthen between our two communities amid intense sporting rivalry.  No better illustration of this could be found than the sight of the Orkney and Shetland netballers gathering in a joint post-match huddle, celebrating what together they had just achieved.  In truth, though, this was just one of many such examples witnessed during all five events.

I may be wrong, but it is difficult to think of a competition like this taking place anywhere else in the country.  In many respects, it is one of those things that makes our island communities different, if not unique.

Fitting then, that it all took place at the end of a week when the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to approve legislation formally recognizing the distinct status of Scotland’s islands.

The original Islands Bill was worthy, but fell short of the lofty rhetoric used by Ministers and, more importantly, the expectations of islanders. Months of diligent evidence gathering, including a visit to Orkney by the relevant Committee, thankfully enabled most of those shortcomings to be addressed.

A key plank of the legislation is the commitment to a National Islands Plan. While this will need to reflect differing priorities for different island communities, I was pleased to get amendments accepted last week that ensure minimum standards are set for our lifeline transport links, broadband and mobile coverage as well as measures to tackle the shockingly high levels of fuel poverty in our islands.

The Bill’s flagship, however, was so-called ‘island proofing’; a response to anger at a one-size-fits-all and centralizing approach by government that has been all too common in recent years.

Initially, Ministers intended to apply this test solely to future legislation. This, in my view, was not good enough and would have left untouched many examples of current laws and policies that simply fail to recognise the needs and circumstances of our islands. 

Getting my amendment accepted so that ‘island proofing’ can be applied retrospectively was therefore particularly satisfying.  As was the success in defeating the government over additional powers.  We cannot know the future but it seems only sensible to leave open the possibility of additional powers and responsibilities being exercised at a more local level, where appropriate.

Meantime, the Scottish Government and its agencies must now respect both the spirit and the letter of this law.  In turn, I hope island communities will be bold in making use of the new powers.

Overall, though, it’s been a good week for our islands, particularly Shetland. As well as retaining the Stuart Cup, Shetland is now protected under the Islands Act from being stuck in a box in the Moray Firth!

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