Friday, 18 January 2008

Scotland can learn from Slovenia

By Rob Gibson MSP
Published: 18 January, 2008
John O'Groat Journal
in association with the Caithness Courier

AS the nights slowly shorten, I notice issues furth of Scotland are crowding for as much attention as matters close to home. So first I'll look at some international contacts I've been involved with that show promise.

Slovenia, one of the small former Yugoslav republics that successfully wrested itself from Serbia, has become the first of the recent accession states to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union.

My Westminster colleague, Moray MP Angus Robertson, was a reporter in Vienna previously and he attended a recent conference in Slovenia's capital. He described the country's potential: "Slovenia is showing us the lead. With a population less than half of Scotland, this Alpine country has taken centre stage and is presiding over the whole EU. Since securing its independence Slovenia's economy has been booming, with recent growth rates of over five per cent. Its capital Ljubljana is bustling with trade and tourism. It is also now a diplomatic centre with scores of permanent diplomatic representatives and is currently the hub of business between EU countries.

"This all has brought tangible benefits to the people of Slovenia, whose standard of living is improving massively and their country is now firmly on the map, reaping the benefits of equality amongst the family of nations. Scotland should look closely and learn from Slovenia. Unlike them, we have a much easier route to self-determination but the destination is the same: independence in Europe."

Making direct international contacts to spread understanding of Scotland is a pledge that this SNP Government takes very seriously. With climate-change and culture hats on, I hope to make my contribution. Last November I made a most successful visit to Brussels to work with Alyn Smith, one our two SNP MEPs. With the help of his policy adviser Dr Aileen McLeod I was able to meet officials of the British Council and Scotland House, which is the EU base for the Scottish Government, and representatives from the EU Commission such as the director-general of education and culture. Also on our itinerary were a number of cultural attach├ęs and other Brussels-based representatives of their country. I met those from Estonia, Catalonia, Hungary, Flanders, Poland and Slovenia.

I was struck by their welcome recognition of Scotland and our distinctive culture as they expressed willingness to invite Scotland to participate as partners. We gave several CDs of contemporary Scots music to each representative we met. So I was delighted to receive several messages of thanks before Christmas. One came from the Slovene counsellor for cultural and audiovisual affairs, Sa\u0161o Gazdic, who wrote: "I really enjoy the Scottish music you gave me as a present at our meeting in the European Parliament. And I will try my best to establish co-operation between the Scottish House in Brussels and Slovenian artists."

There are many new artistic links to be made across the continent. That's why I was pleased to chair the inaugural meeting in Wick last Friday that seeks to set up an international symposium to bring together Scottish and Nordic playwrights that is planned to take place later this year. Caithness is a fulcrum where Norse and Celtic cultures meet. There's every good reason to encourage George Gunn and his Grey Coast Theatre Company colleagues to lay the groundwork. Thanks to Nordic Council funds, they can start to make contacts in Iceland, Norway, etc. I can see a future role for Scottish Government support as we broaden our contacts towards our Nordic near neighbours.

On the downside, the Norwegian Consulate in Edinburgh is being scaled down and diplomatic presence slashed. In Parliament I asked a supplementary question to Linda Fabiani, our Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture, last Thursday. I underlined the help that diplomats have been to local businesses here and hope to see that service restored in future.

Of course, an independent Scotland would automatically attract the provision of ambassadorial contacts which we need now and will in future through ongoing work on many joint Scots-Norwegian economic projects.

Gathering in Wick to discuss an international symposium that will bring together Scottish and Nordic playwrights are (from left) Ann Thomson, Grey Coast Theatre Company; Jacqui Clark, playwright and arts development officer with Shetland Arts Trust; Grey Coast playwright George Gunn; Gail MacDonald, Grey Coast; Christine Russell, director of Scotia Review; Julie Ellen, creative director of Playwrights' Studio Scotland; Donna Heddle, head of the UHI Centre of Nordic Studies; and Rob Gibson, Highlands and Islands SNP MSP.

BACK on home turf I was pleased to see the progress made by the McLeod family in their meeting with the Northern Joint Police Board. The death of their son Kevin in Wick harbour in 1997 will hopefully receive proper scrutiny by the authorities at long last. The case has already led to improved police procedures to deal with unexplained deaths. But I hope that the case of Kevin McLeod can be concluded with some agreement between the family and the authorities to find out, if at all possible, at this distance what actually happened. It was good to begin to clear the air.

In that regard, I am pleased that the first of the additional 150 new police recruits promised by this Government this financial year began training at the Scottish Police College at Tulliallan earlier this week.

The first batch of 52 of the additional officers will be joined by a further 98 recruits in the next two intakes to ensure that the Government delivers 150 more officers by the end of March.

This intake will increase the number of officers in the Far North and elsewhere. Therefore I welcome the actions of my colleague, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, who pledged that the SNP Government will see more police officers becoming part of the fabric of the communities they serve – building local knowledge, forging strong relationships with families and businesses and helping support safe, strong communities for all.

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