Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon Did Not Break Rules, Inquiry Says – The New York Times

LONDON — Scotland’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, did not knowingly breach official rules or mislead the Scottish Parliament about an investigation of her predecessor, an inquiry concluded on Monday, effectively clearing her of allegations so serious that they had sparked calls for her resignation.

The investigation by a senior Irish lawyer, James Hamilton, followed months of infighting over Ms. Sturgeon’s role in a botched internal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct made against Alex Salmond, a former close ally who preceded her as first minister of Scotland.

“I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the provisions of the Ministerial Code in respect of any of these matters,” Mr. Hamilton’s inquiry concluded, referring to the ethics code under which members of the Scottish government operate.

The report culminates a bitter feud between the two dominant figures of recent Scottish politics, a drama that has dented Ms. Sturgeon’s fortunes, prompting accusations that she had deceived lawmakers, broken rules and even conspired against her predecessor.

Opposition politicians had called for Ms. Sturgeon’s resignation, and she was under acute pressure earlier this month, when she gave evidence for eight hours to a parliamentary committee in a separate inquiry into the same events.

Mr. Hamilton’s clear conclusions appear to end any prospect of Ms. Sturgeon quitting and mean that she is likely to survive a no-confidence vote in the Scottish Parliament if one goes ahead this week.

However the crisis has cast a shadow over the push for Scottish independence, as well as Ms. Sturgeon’s career, just as the independence campaign appeared close to a breakthrough.

Buoyed by a succession of opinion polls showing majority support for independence, Ms. Sturgeon was hoping that her Scottish National Party, the largest faction in the Scottish Parliament, would win an overall majority in elections scheduled for May, and then demand a second referendum on whether to break her country’s 314-year-old union with England.

In the 2014 independence referendum, 55 percent of Scottish voters favored remaining within the United Kingdom. But since then, Britain has left the European Union, a deeply unpopular project in Scotland, where 62 percent voted against Brexit in a 2016 referendum.

Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, is not a popular figure in Scotland in contrast to Ms. Sturgeon whose management of the pandemic has won her plaudits.

The infighting among Scottish leaders is all the more remarkable because Ms. Sturgeon was Mr. Salmond’s protégée and served as his deputy for a decade, ultimately succeeding him after his resignation in 2014, when Scotland voted against independence.

Like him, she had a reputation for running the Scottish National Party as a disciplined force in which few public differences were aired in public.

That unity has been blown apart in a bitter rift over the Scottish government’s handling of complaints made against Mr. Salmond in 2018, alleging sexual misconduct in 2013. He argued that the internal processes were flawed, took his case to court and won, forcing the Scottish government to pay out £500,000 — almost $700,000 — in legal costs.

Mr. Salmond, who has admitted to being “no angel” and said he wishes he had been more careful with other people’s personal space, always insisted he did not break the law. When the police prosecuted him, Mr. Salmond was found not guilty on 13 charges of sexual assault including one of attempted rape.

The fallout from that verdict in 2020 has grown into a bewilderingly complicated but intensely personal battle between the former allies.

As in many political scandals, the accusation most damaging to Ms. Sturgeon was of failing to tell the truth — in her case, about the sequence of events during her government’s botched internal investigation into Mr. Salmond’s case.

Misleading Parliament and breaking ministerial rules are normally considered such serious offenses that they lead to calls for resignation.

Ms. Sturgeon has admitted that she did not give the full picture when she said that she had first heard about the allegations against Mr. Salmond on April 2, 2018, during a meeting with him at her home. In fact, she had been given some earlier warning by his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, on March 29, she now acknowledges.

Mr. Salmond contends that, at that stage, Ms. Sturgeon offered to intervene in the case. She denies that, but in a parliamentary committee hearing she conceded that she may not have been blunt enough about not intervening, because of her long friendship with her former mentor.

In his report Mr. Hamilton described Ms. Sturgeon’s failure to mention the earlier meeting as regrettable and something that would be greeted with suspicion, even skepticism, by some.

However, he added, “I find it difficult to think of any convincing reason why, if she had in fact recalled the meeting, she would have deliberately concealed it while disclosing all the conversations she had had with Mr. Salmond.”

Mr. Hamilton is a former director of public prosecutions in Ireland and an independent adviser to the Scottish government on its ministerial code. Parts of his report were redacted, however, prompting complaints from Ms. Sturgeon’s critics.

The parliamentary committee’s report into the same event is expected to be more critical of Ms. Sturgeon, but, because its findings are likely to be seen as more influenced by politics, they are unlikely to seriously damage her.

The committee’s report is scheduled to be published on Tuesday but, according to leaks, opinion among its members appears to have split on party lines, tilting against Ms. Sturgeon by one vote. Last week she dismissed that as a partisan attack.

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Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon Did Not Break Rules, Inquiry Says – The New York Times

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