Nicola Sturgeon has backed an SNP minister who launched a tirade at Tory MSPs after the Westminster terror attack cut short the Holyrood debate on holding a second independence referendum.
Roseanna Cunningham, the Environment Minister, refused six times to say sorry for her outburst on Wednesday, during which she told the Conservative MSPs that that the decision to suspend proceedings was a “disgrace” and akin to giving in to terrorism.
She did not confirm or deny an allegation that she had accused the Tory benches of wanting to suspend the debate so they did not have to talk about independence.
Ms Cunningham refused to answer reporters’ questions after Scottish Government spin doctors unsuccessfully attempted to smuggle her back to her office after First Minister’s Questions, using a back route in the Holyrood building.
But Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman later said she continues to have confidence in Ms Cunningham, one of her most experienced ministers, and refused to accept her conduct was inappropriate.
He denied that the Perthshire South and Kinross-shire MSP made the independence comment but declined to say whether he had asked her whether the allegation was correct.
The questions over Ms Cunningham’s conduct came after Holyrood’s party leaders together expressed their solidarity with London and urged the public to go about their business “defiantly”.
Speaking during a sombre session of First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon agreed with Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale that Britain remains “an open and tolerant nation.”
The SNP leader disclosed there had been a “substantial” increase in the number of armed police on Scotland’s streets, but emphasised there was no intelligence to suggest an elevated threat.
The display of political unity came after it emerged that the parties had agreed to reschedule the remainder of the independence referendum debate and vote on Tuesday, the day before Article 50 is triggered. Ms Sturgeon is expected to deliver the first speech.
The vote will trigger an official demand from the SNP leader to the Prime Minister for talks over a Section 30 order, the legal mechanism used to transfer the powers to Holyrood for a referendum, preferably between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.
But Theresa May announced last week that she would not allow another independence vote until Brexit has been negotiated and Scots can see how it has worked out.
Ms Cunningham’s outburst came after Murdo Fraser, a Scottish Tory MSP, had a request rejected for the debate to be suspended. He argued that MSPs could not focus on independence when the appalling details of the Westminster attack were emerging.
But Ken Macintosh, the presiding officer, announced a halt to proceedings shortly afterwards. Ms Sturgeon’s government requested the suspension but this was not communicated to Ms Cunningham, who turned her fire on the Tories.
She could be seen on television footage angrily jabbing her finger at the Conservative benches and she had to be calmed by colleagues.
Appalled Tory MSPs said she had made unflattering comparisons between their behaviour and the Thatcher government’s determination not to be cowed by the IRA in the 1980s.
Ms Cunningham refused to make any comment, other than to refer to a statement issued by the party in her name the previous day, which neither confirmed nor denied that she made the independence comment.
It said: “Roseanna’s first thoughts are with all of those affected, and while she did initially take the view – shared by some from other parties – that business should not be suspended in the face of terrorism, she fully supports the decision, given the seriousness of events.”
Speaking earlier in the Holyrood chamber, Ms Sturgeon said: “We stand in solidarity with London - a vibrant, diverse, wonderful city that will never be cowed by mindless acts of violence.” She said MSPs’ thoughts and prayers were with the family of PC Keith Palmer, the murdered police officer.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said: “Yesterday, a coward killed three innocent people and injured many more in an attempt to attack the symbol of our country's democracy.
"His attack on our values failed as he died by the paramedics who demonstrated what a civilised society is by trying to save him.”
Ms Dugdale invited Ms Sturgeon “to join me in sending a strong message that Britain remains an open, tolerant nation that is home to people of all faiths and all nationalities.” The First Minster replied that this was “an extremely important message.”
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