Choosing your neighbours

Malachy feels the loss at the departure of a family from Fair Isle and looks ahead to the selection

This week our next-door neighbours left Fair Isle. After more than ten years on the island they have decided to make a new start elsewhere.

Departures like this affect everybody to some degree. People lose friends, colleagues and, in this case, the school has lost two of its pupils.

The past couple of years have seen some fairly major comings and going on the island, with several individuals and families choosing to leave, and others arriving to take their place. In total, 16 new people have moved to Fair Isle since the summer of 2005 – the most recent arrivals moved into a flat in the South Lighthouse only a few weeks ago – which, in a population of just over 70, is a pretty significant number.

Next-door has already been advertised to let in the Fair Isle Times (yes, we have our own weekly paper) and may be advertised more widely if necessary. The house, like the vast majority of properties on the island, is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and potential residents will go through a fairly unusual application process to decide on the successful candidate.

Although the decision rests ultimately with the National Trust, a group of five elected islanders, known as the Housing Forum, meet to discuss all applications, and to assess the suitability of each applicant. The forum then makes their recommendation to the trust.

The process for selecting new residents has attracted considerable attention in the past; even leading Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, to suggest basing a “reality TV” series on it. Needless to say, the suggestion was rejected.

Those with a connection to the island, particularly a family connection, are generally given high priority. People with skills that are needed on the isle, or those can carry out available jobs, are preferred, and families are usually favoured over individuals. If a croft is connected to the property, as it is in this case, then agricultural experience would be a definite advantage. Applicants are sometimes also asked to provide a business plan, to show how they intend to make a living and to demonstrate that they have a realistic understanding of what life on a remote island involves.

This selection process, which is invariably described by the press as a “competition”, has been criticised in the past as being a form of “social engineering”, and, in a sense, that is exactly what it is. But the necessity of such a system is obvious.

In other places, where houses are sold to the highest bidder, young people from the area often cannot afford to stay. Because of this, essential skills are lost and families are separated. At that stage, a community is well on the way to being destroyed.

One of the reasons, perhaps the most significant reason, Fair Isle has managed to sustain its community so successfully, is this issue of housing. Were houses to become available for sale, the island would quickly fill up with holiday homes and rich retirees. And that would be the end of everything that makes this place special.

So, for the moment, until new tenants can be found, my girlfriend and I will be croft-sitting. That means taking care of a muddy field full of miserable-looking sheep, only a month away from lambing, plus one grumpy ram, a handful of year-old lambs, and a dozen hens. I suspect we’ll soon be begging the Housing Forum to hurry up and make a decision. Or, you never know, perhaps we’ll want a croft of our own.

Which reminds me: I must go and feed the chickens.

Photograph: David Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.