Despite misleading headlines in The Herald and Scotsman, at no time have the majority of people living in Orkney or Shetland expressed a wish to be independent from Scotland and no requests have been submitted to the Scottish government for additional powers. Last month, the Scottish government announced that the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland would benefit from a £50m growth deal.
Orkney and Shetland have been part of Scotland for twice as long as Scotland has been ruled by Westminster and of course they should have as much local autonomy that is possible.
Unionist interest in self-determination for small islands is directly related to power and money. Westminster wasn’t terribly interested in the right to self-determination of the people of the Chagos Islands who were cleared out their homes when the UK handed over the islands to the USA for a naval base but very interested in The Falklands offshore 1.7 billion barrels of crude oil.
The Continental Shelf Act 1964 and the Continental Shelf (Jurisdiction) Order 1968 defines the UK North Sea maritime area to the north of latitude 55 degrees north as being under the jurisdiction of Scots law meaning that 94% of the UK’s oil resources are under Scottish jurisdiction. In addition, section 126 of the Scotland Act 1998 defines Scottish waters as the internal waters and territorial sea of the United Kingdom as are adjacent to Scotland.
However, if Shetland decided to breakaway, under International law and United Nations convention (UNCLOS) regarding small islands / enclaves they would only be entitled to six miles of territorial waters meaning no oil and not much fish.
What if, for example, Whalsay and Foula declared independence or elected to stick with Scotland? Unionists should note that the Isle of Man and Channel Islands only have rights up to six miles offshore.
Even under the hypothetical circumstance that this occurred, Westminster wouldn’t be able to retain control of the oil fields anyway. These matters are regulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the UK is a signatory. International law specifies that a state controls the continental shelf and associated mineral and fishing rights up to 200 nautical miles (230 miles or 370 km) off its shores. When another state possesses an island within the continental shelf of this state, special rules apply.
This matter was discussed in detail in a legal paper published by the European Journal of International Law: Prospective Anglo-Scottish Maritime Boundary Revisited
Most of the rights to the continental shelf would remain Scottish, Map 2 on page 29 of the legal paper shows the most likely sea boundaries. Westminster would be entitled only to a small zone around the islands, and the waters between Orkney and Shetland. This area contains no oil fields. If Shetland and Orkney were to remain under Westminster’s control, Shetland would no longer have an oil fund.
By electing to remain part of the UK the northern islanders would face longer trips to mainland hospitals in Newcastle, student tuition fees and numerous other practical disadvantages. In reality, there is more chance of a neglected Cumbria or Northumberland joining an Independent Scotland than Orkney or Shetland leaving.
All this was debated during the 2014 independence campaign as part of Project Fear’s attempts to side track Yes supporters from putting forward a positive vision for Scotland.
Now pro UK Westminster dependency supporters have no positive case left for the Union.