By Sámal Matras Kristiansen, sociologist and editor
Home rule is an ideal solution for the Orkneys, Shetland, and the Hebrides
It’s very understandable that the Orkneys want more self-determination. From a Faroese perspective we are sad to see that our three southern neighbours Shetland (Hetland), the Orkneys (Orknoyar) and the Outer Hebrides (Suðuroyar) are very underdeveloped compared to the Faroe Islands, who are now amongst the richest countries in Europe. Even though you have long since lost your Nordic tongue, we feel somewhat connected to you. Even though the Faroes are geographically more peripheral than the Orkneys, political circumstances have peripheralized the Orkneys to an unnecessary extent.
I have also observed that there are people in the Orkneys who are afraid of any constitutional changes, comparing it to Brexit. This comparison is quite far-fetched and incomparable in so many ways. In fact, there are other British Isles that have a great degree of self-determination and are – therefore – doing very well. The Isle of Man or the Channel Islands could be role-models for North Atlantic Britain: the Orkneys, Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are richer than the rest of the UK, but the Orkneys haven’t got the same advantage that they both could and should have.
Another possibility would in fact be to look northwards toward the island-country that is probably most comparable to North Atlantic Britain: The Faroe Islands, which are now wealthier than Denmark measured per capita. Since 1948 we have had home rule (heimastýri) under the Danish Crown. Before that we were a poor Danish county (amt). Home-rule limits our dependency in certain ways: we don’t have our own currency, we don’t have a supreme court, we don’t have our own defence etc. But in most other regards we have a large degree of self-determination. We’re not even forced to be a part of the EU, and neither is Greenland, which was a part of EEC, but left in 1985.
Home rule is in fact a splendid idea because it functions as a kind of learning-process. It’s in many ways preferable to independence, and it can also function as a preparation for later independence. The Faroes started off with very little self-determination, but as years went by, we built our own little modern society. Surely home rule isn’t a miracle-cure; the Faroes have also experienced setbacks.
But the fact is nonetheless that the Faroes today have their own airport, their own airline companies, their own shipping companies including an international passenger ferry, their own public service media, their own symphony orchestra, their own communications companies, their own internal ferries, busses and helicopters, their own road system including a large amount of bridges, tunnels and sub-sea tunnels, their own high schools, their own fisheries and aquaculture research and an internationally acclaimed university offering a broad range of educations. We even have our own national teams competing in international competitions like the European Men’s Handball Championship in Germany next year. And I’m only getting started, because the list of achievements during the past 75 years is very long. We have the power to organize and prioritize our domestic affairs and many foreign affairs, but still, we get a yearly grant from the Kingdom, which finances a large chunk of the public sector.
We don’t have it all, but we really have an astonishing number of services and privileges relative to our minute size. Personally, I’m editing Faroese textbooks for the Faroese education-system – both primary, secondary, and tertiary education. We don’t have all the needed books yet, but we have a broad range, nevertheless. And it’s getting better all the time.
In fact, the Faroes are a demonstration of how well a flexible and dynamic home rule-system can function. The system isn’t static but has been developed through the years to meet new demands. The Faroese home rule-system is self-developing, and we can decide the speed of incremental devolution – first we crawled, then we walked and now we run. Some call it a step by step-system. In fact, I would recommend that not only the Orkneys, but all the three Island-countries in North Atlantic Britain seek a similar home rule-system like the one we have in the Faroes. I even believe this could be a model for other islands within the EU to pursue. For example, I believe that islands like Danish Bornholm and Swedish Gotland would gain greatly from having a home rule-system like the Finnish Aaland situated between Finland and Sweden.
I firmly believe your wonderful islands have great potential. You are located more favourably than the Faroe Islands in many ways. You have everything to win and nothing to lose. You are obviously not doing well under the current regime, so change is urgent. There are some things that would be a problem though: mainly fisheries and trade. The Faroes are not a part of the EU – exactly because of the EU’s fisheries policy – and therefore have a large self-determination in fisheries- and trade-policies. I’m not sure how Orcadian trade and fisheries could be developed within the current system – being a part of both Scotland and the UK, but it’s certainly easier outside the EU than within the EU. Nevertheless, the development of fisheries and trade depends on the political will of both the UK, Scotland etc. Another issue is the balance between tax-revenues and grants which obviously must change dramatically.
Nevertheless, even if there are obstacles, you would gain a lot from seeking a home rule-system that shifts the powers of taxation, spending and investments from London/Edinburgh to Kirkwall, Lerwick and Stornoway. I would love to see these three capitals blossom during the next decades. The North Atlantic isn’t a dark and dull periphery. In fact, we are the navel of the world, if only we choose to be.