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Nicky Marr: Debate underlined issues facing folk across the north

By Nicky Marr

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Nicky Marr, Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Nicky Marr, Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Now that it’s over, I can admit what an absolute privilege it was to have hosted the Inverness Courier Leadership Debate in Inverness on Friday night.

To cross-examine the three contenders to be Scotland’s sixth Firth Minister on matters of importance to the people of the north, is up there as a career highlight.

In the run up to the debate, and indeed, until the minute I stepped on stage, I was seriously, and excruciatingly, out of my comfort zone. But the days of preparation and research kicked in. Once I got going, those 90 minutes flew by.

The questions posed to the candidates weren’t mine; I was there as the voice of the readers and subscribers of Highland News and Media titles, who had submitted questions in their hundreds. These were distilled at Courier HQ into the topics that I then put to the candidates.

Uniquely among the leadership debates, this one focused almost exclusively on local issues. And uniquely, we drilled down into policy, asking not just what the candidates would do, but how would they actually achieve those goals, fund them, and by when.

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I’m not sure we got many straight answers, but we did elicit some promises to which we will hold our next First Minister to account.

Topics included broken SNP promises over dualling of the A9, timescales for upgrading the A96 and Caithness and Elgin maternity services, and the potential break-up of Highland Council.

The issue of the decentralisation of Police Scotland and 999 call-handling services was raised through an emotional question submitted by retired Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Hepburn. Five years ago he had to watch his wife die because a centralised call-handler didn’t know where Orkney was, so couldn’t dispatch an ambulance.

Nicky Marr. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Nicky Marr. Picture: James Mackenzie.

In the 20-plus years that I’ve been hosting events and conferences, I have learned to control my emotions on stage. This wasn’t my story, it was Charles’s, and he deserved real answers. But it hit me hard. Listening to politicians arguing, point-scoring, and spouting soundbites, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all irrelevant hot air. In fact, politics is about policies that impact our daily lives, sometimes with devastating consequences.

The debate, which took place in front of an audience of around 200 people was broadcast on the Inverness Courier website, and watched live, and then later, by thousands more.

But the media coverage of our debate, which started minutes after the news broke of the resignations of SNP chief of communications Murray Foote, and Nicola Sturgeon’s special adviser Liz Lloyd, has reached well beyond the typical geographical reach of these titles.

The debate has been covered by US Broadcast Network ABC News, and global website Yahoo News. A Press Association story has been published right across North America, and our debate has been picked up by UK national titles too.

If nothing else, the mere fact of bringing the candidates to Inverness and letting them hear from local people about how their priorities and choices impact our lives and the running of our businesses, will underline to our next First Minister that not all of Scotland works in the same way as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

When I was asked to moderate the debate, I was flattered. As the planning started – eating into every spare minute I had – I felt increasingly less sure of my abilities. But with the amazing team at the newspapers uploading their decades of knowledge into my brain (a USB port behind my ear would have been useful) I finally felt ready.

I hope I did you – and them - proud. I hope I represented your concerns. And I hope the right candidate wins and follows through on their promises. We’ll be watching and holding them to account.

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