SNP facing fraud probes over missing independence campaign cash

It was an unhappy day for the country when the scandal brewing over Nicola Sturgeon, over her government’s abysmal handling of allegations against her predecessor, ran out of steam shortly before the Scottish elections.

Given that she missed out on that crucial overall majority by only one seat, it can’t be ruled out that the smoke made a crucial difference. But her career did not, as it at one point appeared it might, go up in flames.

But one escape has not fixed the deep-seated problems facing her party. The First Minister is caught between her instincts as an adept political realist and a base hungry for a second vote towards which the SNP has no easy path.

Indeed, it now appears as if the Nationalist leadership’s conviction that there won’t be another referendum anytime soon may have landed them in legal difficulty. The party is facing a police probe into allegations that it has fraudulently misused funds raised to fund the next independence campaign. The Daily Express reports:

“Police Scotland say they are investigating after saying it had received seven complaints about donations made to the party. The allegations surround claims made by whistleblowers who say that more than £600,000, which has been ring-fenced for holding a second independence referendum, is missing from the party’s accounts.”

This story has been brewing for months, ever since members of the SNP’s Finance and Audit Committee resigned after being refused access to the party’s accounts by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband.

It remains to be seen if the allegations come to anything, but the fact that they have been brought by other nationalists highlights the deepening divisions opening up inside the separatist tent. And if the funds have been spent elsewhere (whether criminally or not) it will be further evidence to the base that their leaders don’t really believe that another referendum campaign is in the offing anytime soon.

Ministers allow six weeks to propose alternatives to Troubles amnesties

The Government will give opponents of its plan to issue a de facto amnesty for killings committing during the Troubles time to come up with alternative suggestions, according to the Times.

Last week, Brandon Lewis unveiled plans to protect ex-servicemen from the threat of so-called ‘legacy prosecutions’. However, in order to do so similar protections had to be offered to IRA killers. I previously wrote about how this policy is basically an extension of a long-standing campaign by Tory backbenchers against so-called ‘tank-chaser’ lawyers, which originally focused on prosecutions brought over Iraq. The Northern Irish Office exempted troops who served in Ulster from the new protections at the time.

The move has prompted outrage on all sides. Some of it, however, must be taken with a pinch of salt. If Labour want to attack the Government on this, it must explain the difference between this ‘bad amnesty’ and its own, presumably ‘good amnesties’. The party oversaw both the early release of convicted terrorists and issued ‘comfort letters’ (a de facto amnesty) to on-the-run criminals.

Likewise, to see Gerry Kelly – Sinn Fein MLA, convicted IRA killer, and recipient of a Royal Pardon for involvement in the Old Bailey bombing – clutching a sign opposing the amnesty is a morbid joke.

For their part, ministers are confident that the plan will stand up to the inevitable legal challenges. But the question remains: is it worth it?

Prosecutors recently dropped the case against ‘Soldier F’, the individual facing the most serious charges in relation to Bloody Sunday. Whilst there are legitimate concerns that London has allowed the legacy investigations process to focus too heavily on the state and security forces, if the investigators can’t even get Soldier F into court it may well be that the real risk of prosecution for ex-servicemen and former RUC officers was already very small.

Government squares off with the devocrats over freeports and development funding

More news from the front lines of ‘muscular unionism’ this week, with the papers reporting that the Government is to press ahead with plans to open freeports in Scotland despite efforts by the Scottish Government to scupper the plans.

Crucially, ministers have a staunch ally in Aberdeen Council. I previously wrote about how independent-minded local authorities in Scotland are looking to Westminster to help buttress their autonomy from a rapaciously centralising SNP administration in Edinburgh, and it is very heartening to see that dynamic in action.

Not that the old guard are going down without a fight. The Institute for Government, that bastion of devolutionary orthodoxy, have put out new analysis suggesting that ministers risk undermining the Union if they don’t give devocrats partial control over the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Ministers are not likely to accept this claim – it rests on fundamentally different premises to the new unionism embodied in the UK Internal Market Act and upcoming Subsidy Control Bill. But it is a taste of the battle they will have to fight over and over again over the years ahead as they press ahead with this long-overdue change in approach.