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HomeDefenceCould the Scottish Orkney Islands Really Become Part of Norway?

Could the Scottish Orkney Islands Really Become Part of Norway?

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The UK territory’s proposal to investigate ‘alternative forms of governance’ provoked international headlines, but what’s actually going on?

Following Brexit and the ongoing debate about whether Scotland should leave the UK, a new constitutional question appeared: whether the Orkney Islands should join Norway. 

The Orkney Islands are currently part of Scotland and by extension the UK. 

However, unhappy with the funding the islands currently get, Orkney council leader James Stockan put forward a motion to consider “alternative models of governance”.

By that he meant becoming part of Norway. 

“We’ve been part of the northern kingdom for much longer than we’ve been part of the UK,” he told the BBC.

“On the streets of Orkney, people come up to me and say: ‘When are we going to pay back the dowry? When are we going back to Norway?”

The North Sea archipelago was controlled by a Norwegian king until 1472, who returned Shetland to Scotland as part of the dowry when his daughter married a Scottish king.

There are other options on the table. 

Besides exploring “northern connections”, the motion envisaged becoming a “Crown Dependency”, like the Isles of Man, Guernsey or Jersey, which are under the sovereignty of the British Crown without being part of the UK.

However, the proposals have been given short shrift by London.  

“First and foremost, there is no mechanism” for any part of the UK to become a Crown Dependency or Overseas Territory, the Prime Minister’s spokesman retorted on Monday.

“But fundamentally, we are stronger as a United Kingdom, and that is something we have no intention of changing”, he added, pointing to the financial support the archipelago enjoys.

Meanwhile, Norway has kept a diplomatic distance from the debate. 

“This is a domestic and constitutional British matter,” the Norwegian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We have no view regarding this motion.”

What’s actually happening?

The proposals generated a lot of headlines across the UK and within other global outlets, putting a spotlight on the islands.

This comes at a time when local politicians feel hard done by when it comes to funding from the Scottish and UK governments. 

Writing in the Scottish newspaper The Herald, reporter David Leask suggested 2011 census data showed the vast majority of people in the islands saw themselves as Scottish or British, and very few as Norwegian. 

“Northern islanders – like others in the Highlands and Islands – are essentially letting out a screech of complaint about how they are governed from Edinburgh and London,” he added.

During the council meeting to discuss the motion, much of the discussion centred on frustrations with funding for the area.

At the meeting itself, Stockan said the islands had been held down and were victims of discrimination regarding the funding they get compared to other islands. 

Another of his concerns was that ferries to the mainland were inadequate, with central government failing to step in. 

“You all know what our greatest need is, an archipelago of islands cannot survive without a reliable, sustainable ferry service,” he said. “We’ve been asking for 15 years for [the government] to help us, to support us, to make sure we can continue to support our islands.” 

He expressed unhappiness with the Scottish Government for not making progress on a ferries taskforce, plus the “patronising” response from London.  

“I say it’s time for government to take us seriously and I say it’s time for us to look at all the options we’ve got,” he said, adding: “This is not about us joining Norway.”

“There is a far bigger suite of options here – this could even be that we could get our money direct from the Treasury in London and look after our own future.”

Backing the proposals, Orkney Councillor Heather Woodbridge said the Norway idea had garnered much publicity.  

“The media of course have taken great interest in this today and for the first time our challenges with regard to our funding fairness and our ferries replacement has hit not only the national media but the global media. What a platform for our unfairness.” 

Councillor David Dawson, however, dismissed options like joining Norway as “quite frankly bizarre fantasies,” claiming it was “likely to be a pandora’s box of unintended curses on… Orkney.”

“If you’re minded to follow this route, let me caution you with one word – Brexit,” he added. 

Next steps

Regardless of how it all came about and whether anyone in the Orkney Islands really wants to change how the area is governed, it will be investigated further. 

Councillors voted to back Stockan’s approach, and officials will now have the job of investigating all the options.

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