Friday, 6 July 2007

Our minority government has the wind in its sails

Published: 06 July, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

WHAT a six weeks it's been since the Scottish elections produced a slim SNP victory at Holyrood.

Minority government is a rare experience, but exhilarating announcements were made that will be followed by legislation. Session three was then marked by the formal opening by the Queen of Scots, ably introduced by our new Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson and replied to in style by First Minister Alex Salmond.

A breath of fresh air has passed through the corridors of devolved power in Edinburgh, and the celebrations on the Royal Mile and at the picnic and entertainment on the green spaces outside the Parliament were a popular success, even if the latter acts last Saturday afternoon played in the prevailing rain that has so marred this June.

Later that evening MSPs and invited guests were privileged to attend a special performance of the award-winning production of Black Watch. It was a masterstroke by the First Minister to secure sponsorship and provide performances for Black Watch families and finally for MSPs for a play that is being adapted for performance in North America.

I can think of no more symbolic statement that the health of our culture is at the heart of Scotland's new government policy. It is a searing indictment of policies that have destroyed so many Iraqis and hundreds of our forces sent in to create stability. Vicky Featherstone, the artistic director and chief executive of the National Theatre of Scotland, rose to the challenge and relished the chance to mount these special performances at relatively short notice. She rightly denied the charge by one arts journalist that a Parliament "command performance" was inappropriate.

I chatted with Vicky and some of the cast to add my congratulations after the show, and we recalled meeting at the first performance of Home which the National Theatre staged in the former Caithness Glass factory early last year. Under the watchful eye of our new Culture Minister Linda Fabiani there are widespread hopes of seeing many more innovative moves to celebrate the arts across Scotland. In an answer to me at the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture meeting last week she assured me that local centres of excellence in drama and theatre are very much a part of her plans.


TRANSPORT, shipping and the conservation of the waters around our shores were controversial debates before this summer recess. I spoke in support of an all-Scotland transport strategy that ensured rail and road improvements in our neck of the woods. Although Highland Lib Dem, Labour and Tory MSPs supported the profligate Edinburgh Airport Rail Link and Edinburgh trams scheme, I have a hunch that EARL just won't come about and we can get the cash saved to invest in North transport needs.

Also I heard the Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson declare he was about to review the submissions of HITRANS and other regional transport partnerships. I guess he will greet their contribution as a wish-list and not a strategy. So watch this space when he gets to the Far North to see for himself.

On the threat of ship-to-ship crude oil transfers in the Firth of Forth, there was unanimity. But why had the previous Executive failed to get London engaged over the past two years? At least there will be no nasty surprises from Forth Ports Authority over the summer as we have now voted for an order to call in any such plan. This does not reflect badly on ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore transfers of oil at Sullom Voe, Scapa Flow or Nigg, as these have been conducted safely for many years in sheltered waters.

Hopefully a Marine Act for Scotland will pass through Holyrood later in this session, but it has to rationalise 85 Acts from Westminster so it would not immediately solve the Forth Ports issue. But it begs the question how interested the new Brown Government in London will be in removing our immediate fears by amending the Merchant Shipping Acts.


FLOTILLAS in the past have too often meant the massing of warships. Last week, however, the Moray Firth Flotilla was a peaceful triumph in the calendar of 2007 celebrating Scotland's Year of Highland Culture. Wick's HarbourFest was a huge crowd-puller, as was each leg of the voyage to Portsoy.

I caught up with the show at Helmsdale at the ceilidh after the arrivals of the day had taken to the floor. My storytelling friend Ian Stephen, aboard An Sulaire, the open fishing yawl from Port of Ness in Lewis, was in fine form as he had been in Lybster, spinning yarns for local schoolchildren earlier that day.

I'm sure the spirits of many more were raised in every port of call. Huge congratulations to the Caithness Courier for the pages of pictures and reports of the HarbourFest.

That reminds me how well newspapers in Brittany, our holiday destination – reached by road and ferry, I would add – cover local music events and huge boating festivals, and I look forward to such in-depth coverage becoming more normal in our papers. The refurbished fishing craft made a fine sight and this reminds us of what a draw sailing the Scottish coast is for yachtspeople today. Scandinavian and Dutch boats sail more and more often to our small harbours. It's a great way to welcome overseas visitors.

Such peaceful seafarers spend more, stay longer, and don't get caught up in the chaos of air travel. Alas, so many of our own folk heading off in the school holidays are booked to fly abroad and this weekend showed us how al-Qa'ida terrorism knows no boundaries in targeting London and Glasgow. Let's be pleased our Scottish Government is part of the wider security net, but let us also work harder for co-operation to establish the modern rule of international law. A revitalised United Nations is needed where the SNP wants Scotland to take its place among the nations. Meanwhile, I hope Gordon Brown's new Government will take a change of tack from being world policeman to champion of a stronger UN.

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