Salmond inquiry: If Nicola Sturgeon misled Holyrood, that's a resigning matter – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP
The phrase “I don’t recall” was used a total of 88 times by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North in sworn testimony to the Joint-Congressional Hearings on the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1987.
Sudden memory loss is one way of avoiding awkward questions and is infuriating to those charged with finding the truth. I should know. We’ve had our fair share of rapid onset amnesia from witnesses to the 'Salmond Inquiry’.
In the seven or so weeks we’ve been taking evidence, we’ve had some quite startling, ‘Oliver North’ moments. The head of the civil service couldn’t remember if Alex Salmond had ever shouted at her while he was First Minister (not something I’d imagine you’d easily forget, but you’d also be clear if it had never happened).
Then there was the HR director who couldn’t recall receiving a text from her boss saying “we may have lost the battle but we’ll win the war” after Salmond won his judicial review against the Government – despite it being widely reported in the press as suggesting a conspiracy. But by far the most startling problem with recollection came from the First Minister herself.
Prior to the criminal trial that resulted in Salmond’s acquittal on charges of sexual misconduct and attempted rape, Nicola Sturgeon had maintained that the first she’d learned of the official government investigation into two of these complaints was from Salmond himself at a meeting at her home on 2 April 2018. Only after court testimony revealed she had discussed the allegations five days earlier at a meeting with Salmond’s most trusted adviser, did she change her story.
Her written evidence to the committee cites memory-loss: “I had forgotten that this encounter had taken place.” She explains that it had been “in the midst of a busy day”.
I struggle with this account. Many times, the First Minister has defined her relationship with Salmond as “the most important outside of her family – a mentor of 30 years”. Think of anyone that important to you and now imagine being told for the first time that they were under investigation for sexual assault. I doubt it’s a meeting you’d forget.
When the allegations first came to light in 2018, Andrew Marr asked the FM on camera – “had you heard stories about him before it broke in the press?” To which she replied, unequivocally “absolutely not”.
Yet her written evidence to our committee states she had been told in 2017 about an alleged incident at Edinburgh Airport which Salmond had denied. She states that it left her with a "lingering concern” that other allegations could arise.
All of this suggests that the First Minister may not have been entirely straight with her answers to parliament and that matters. The remit of her self-referral for investigation over a potential breach of the Ministerial Code is currently tasked to look only at her meetings with Salmond.
That’s why I’ve asked for the remit to be expanded to look at her actions under Section 1(c) of the code, to ascertain whether she has misled parliament. If she has, then that’s a resignation matter.
If the remit is expanded and it should be, the First Minister will need more than the old Olly North defence of “I don’t recall”.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western