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Sturgeon, Salmond, and the slow death of honour


NICOLA Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is in the clear.  

James Hamilton QC has delivered his findings into whether or not she broke the ministerial codeHis decision, delivered yesterday: She did not.   

Sturgeon had referred herself to the barrister, who was appointed as an ‘independent adviser’ to the Scottish Government’s ministerial code in 2013 by her adversary and predecessor, Alex Salmond.  

The First Minister, who denies breaching the ministerial code, instructed Hamilton in January 2019 to carry out an ‘independent inquiry’ into her conduct. 

The result of his inquiry has, without doubt, saved her. But who is James Hamilton?  He studied History and Political Science at Trinity College in Dublin in 1971 and practised at the Bar of Ireland from 1973 to 1981. 

In 1981, he was appointed full-time legal adviser to the Attorney-General of Ireland and in 1995, he became the permanent head of the Office of the Attorney-General, and senior legal adviser to the Irish Attorney-General. 

He was responsible for providing the Irish government with legal advice on issues arising during the negotiations which led to the Northern Ireland Agreement in 1998, and he was the Director of Public 

Prosecutions in Ireland from 1999 to 2011, when he took early retirement.  

He served as president of the International Association of Prosecutors, based at The Hague in Holland, from 2011 until 2013, when he was recruited by Salmond to assist the Scottish government. 

Hamilton has experience of investigating the behaviour of First Ministers. In 2017, he was asked by the Welsh Government to determine whether its First Minister, Carwyn Jones, had lied to the Welsh Assembly about bullying allegations within the government. 

Hamilton cleared  Jones of breaching the ministerial code, saying his account to the assembly was ‘accurate and truthful, and not misleading’. Jones, nonetheless, announced his resignation to the Welsh Labour conference just five days later. 

As for the Scottish First Minister, Hamilton found she had committed ‘no breach’ of ministerial conduct for in her part in the Alex Salmond affair.  

The Irish QC said it was ‘regrettable’ that Sturgeon had not told Scottish Parliament members about her meeting with Salmond. But he said he found it ‘difficult to think of any convincing reason’ for her to deliberately conceal it, describing her omission as ‘the result of a genuine failure of recollection’.  

Hamilton also suggested that the rules pertaining to the conduct of special advisers (SPADS) ‘may need some further revision’ and that ‘consideration might also be given to whether some of the provisions of the ministerial code which apply to ministers should also apply with appropriate modifications to special advisers, for example, the requirement to record external contacts.’ This is like saying fish should swim in water. 

Hamilton also advised Salmond to refer any complaints he might have about leaks from the First Minister’s office to the police and stressed that this had formed no part of his investigation.  

His findings are in stark contrast to those of the parliamentary committee investigating Sturgeon, her government, and her civil servants’ behaviours in the Alex Salmond affair. 

The parliamentary committee has concluded, in direct opposition to Hamilton, that Sturgeon and members of the Scottish government did contrive to conduct an unlawful investigation into the complaints made against Salmond

So where does this leave Ms Sturgeon and Scotland? The First Minister keeps her position and goes into the elections in May tarnished but unbowed.  

The narrative for independence has another line, pointing to partisan forces of opposition in the Scottish Parliament and Westminster machination. Sturgeon and Independence supporters could not have hoped for more.  

What is lost amidst these tawdry goings-on is any residual trust in the political class. People recognise a lie, even if dressed up in memory lapse, formal reports, legalese, and obfuscation.  

Salmond’s plea, uttered on oath to the Holyrood investigation committee, echoes like the howl of a wounded beast in a Scotland that has truly lost its way: ‘Independence, which I have sought all my political life and continue to seek, must be accompanied by institutions whose leadership is strong and robust, and capable of protecting each and every citizen from arbitrary authority … such a principle is a central component of the rule of law. It matters to every person in Scotland as much as it ever has done … it is the bedrock of our democracy, of justice, and of fairness.’ 

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Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop is a mediator.

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