ORKNEY, Scotland, April 21 (RIA Novosti) – A proposal by activists who oppose Scottish independence for the region's Northern Isles to petition the UK to annex the islands has little or no local support, a former senior British diplomat told RIA Novosti.
Craig Murray, a former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, accused the activists, who are campaigning for a “no” vote in Scotland’s forthcoming independence referendum, of peddling “Unionist propaganda” and challenged them to provide evidence of support for the idea amongst islanders.
Murray, who previously held senior positions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told RIA Novosti “there is no evidence whatsoever of any desire among any significant number of inhabitants in Orkney or Shetland to leave Scotland, under any circumstances.”
“This is a piece of recurring Unionist propaganda which has been dredged up at intervals for at least thirty years,” Murray said, adding that there has never been an opinion poll conducted locally showing support for a petition to grant the islands the status of a crown dependency.
Such a proposal would see ultimate authority over the islands retained by the British Government in the event of Scottish independence.
The idea originated from Hugh Halcro-Johnston, a prominent oppositionist to Scottish independence, who has lived in Orkney since 1979. Halcro-Johnston previously held political control of the Orkney Islands Council until losing his position in local elections in 2003. He told RIA Novosti there would be difficult negotiations ahead.
“Should Scotland vote ‘yes’ then everything changes,” he said. “I think that scenario would provide an opportunity for the islands to seek special status – particularly in relation to defense in view of the islands’ strategic importance.”
Halcro-Johnston added that any deal should also consider control of oil reserves located offshore the islands. He claimed local residents would support his proposal, but declined to provide evidence to back that assertion.
Both Orkney and Shetland are home to two large terminals that process oil extracted from the North Sea.
The current political leaders of the islands have refused to endorse the proposal, but stressed they wanted to ensure local residents benefit from oil reserves found in nearby waters.
“We seek to benefit from the exploitation of the resources surrounding our islands by way of community benefit and more control over what happens around us,” Convenor of Shetland Islands Council Gary Robinson told RIA Novosti.
Robinson stressed the islands would not necessarily split away from Scotland if Scots back independence in September’s referendum.
“I haven't detected any overwhelming desire for outright independence for the islands or crown dependency status,” he added.
Robert Leslie, who runs the pro-independence “yes” campaign in Orkney, told RIA Novosti that the proposals to annex the Northern Isles was “not surprising coming from a movement that is determined to defend the privileges currently enjoyed by the political and business elite in the UK.”