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FM made 'mistake' over Citizens’ Assembly announcement, says co-convener

David Martin MEP says it should have been presented separately from the Referendums Bill.

"It was a mistake" to combine the announcement of a Citizens' Assembly and legislation to pave the way for IndyRef2, says newly appointed co-convener.

Speaking to Scotland Tonight, the outgoing Scottish Labour MEP said he can understand why some are sceptical about the Assembly, but added he's been reassured it will be completely independent from the Scottish Government.

Mr Martin's remarks came on the day Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell said 100 members of the public will be recruited over the summer to take part and discuss the big issues facing the nation.

The Assembly has faced opposition from the Scottish Tories and the Lib Dems.

Tory constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins told parliament it is "nothing but a talking shop for independence", while Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie labelled it "an attempt to sew some new patches on the SNP's dodgy case for independence."

Mr Rennie added: "Taxpayer's money should not be used for a party-political exercise like this."

Here is an edited transcript of David Martin's interview.

Rona Dougall: David, what made you want to get involved in the citizens' assembly project?

David Martin: I think most people will recognise these days that democracy is in a bit of trouble, that there is a disconnect between the average citizen and the average politician. I think Ireland has proved that a citizens' assembly is a way of bringing the two back together. It's innovative, it's worth trying. There are no guarantees of success, but I think if we engage more people in the democratic process, it's worth the effort. There will be 100 members of the public involved.

Rona: There will be a 100 members of the public involved. How will they be selected and what would they do?

David: One of the things I was extremely keen on is to make sure that the selection of individuals was completely random, that there was no political interference in this, and the government, I'm pleased to say, agreed to that. And they will be selected as a microcosm of society. So for example, I don't know how much percentage of students we have, but if 10% of the population is students, then 10% of the assembly will be made up of students. We will obviously have a 50-50 gender balance. But it will reflect society as a whole. What they will do is meet over six weekends between September and March next year, and they will hear from experts on various topics and be allowed to form their opinion on what they think of various subjects, various topics like migration, employment, climate change, and try and move away from the idea that there are binary answers to everything, that one side is always right and the other side is always wrong, and see if we can find consensus on a number of issues in Scottish society. The important thing is it's not just the 100 people in the room, but the people outside. And every document presented to the assembly will be made available online, and all the debates we hope will be live streamed, so everyone will be able to participate in this democratic process.

Rona: The Tories and the Lib Dems plan to boycott it. The Tories say it could have had a role to play in Scotland, but the plan that's outlined is "nothing but a talking shop for independence." 

David: I'm frankly really disappointed that both the Liberals and the Conservatives have taken this line. I hope that I can persuade them to change their mind. I spoke extensively to Mike Russell, the minister responsible for agreeing to this position, because I don't want to be a patsy for the government. I want this to be a genuine debate to see if there are issues on which we can find consensus in Scotland. And it's not as some people describe, and I've made it clear I wouldn't take the role if it was this, it's not about coming to a conclusion about whether there should be a second independence referendum. That is a matter for the Scottish government, the Scottish parliament, and indeed for the UK government. It's not about saying at the end of this process that Scotland would be better off independent or not independent. It's about taking issues and seeing if there are ways we can tweak the constitution to tackle these issues better. And obviously the assembly itself will set its own rules and agenda, but I don't expect at the end of this process for the assembly to come down and say 'what we want is devo max, what we want is independence', or 'what we want is more union'. I expect it to come out with a range of options saying 'here are the challenges that Scotland face, 'and here are the potential solutions to these challenges'.

"I don't want to be a patsy for the government. I want this to be a genuine debate."
Citizens' Assembly co-convener David Martin

Rona: But can you understand why there is some scepticism about it? When Nicola Sturgeon announced there would be a citizens' assembly, at the same time she brought forward a Holyrood bill to pave the way for an independence referendum. Is that not all part of the same political exercise? Can you not understand why some people see it as that?

David: Frankly, yes I can. I can't speak for the first minister, but I think it was a mistake to actually put them all in the one package. I think the citizens' assembly issue should have been dealt with as a separate issue. But I think the government itself recognises that, and I have to say I was first approached about this roughly four weeks ago. And I have been in extensive discussions since, because I wanted to make sure firstly, the selection of individuals on the assembly would be a random choice, that the assembly would be in charge of its own agenda, and there would be minimum, hopefully no government interference in the process. And I've had all of these reassurances. So while I understand, given how heated the constitutional debate has been in Scotland, that people have their concerns, I hope they will give this a chance. Because it clearly has worked in Ireland, it's worked in other parts of the world, and Scotland needs to get away from this idea that we are for or against Brexit, for or against independence, and there is nothing in between. Binary choices are destroying our politics. And as I say, it's not going to be easy, there are no guarantees. But we need to try and find if there are areas of consensus in Scotland at the present time.

Rona: You say there's going to be no guarantees, but I'm looking for guarantees and many people are, that this assembly will be completely impartial and independent from government. And do you agree with Scottish Labour that the parliament must be given a much bigger role of scrutiny in setting up the assembly?

David: I think it's very important that the assembly operates as an independent, autonomous body, and all the assurances I've had is that that is exactly what it will do. For example, those supporting the assembly, the civil service and other administrators, will not be based in any government office. But we don't know for sure, but we think they will be hosted by Edinburgh University. That's yet to be confirmed, but they will be hosted by an outside body. The members of the assembly itself will be in charge of their own agenda. And if we are as successful as Ireland, they will take control of the process. So I understand the concern. I also understand that it's right that the conclusions of this body are not just addressed to the Scottish government but are addressed to the Scottish parliament, democratically elected individuals representing Scotland. And of course it will be up to the Scottish parliament to decide how they take these proposals forward.

Rona: After the Brexit vote, you said you couldn't rule out voting for Scottish independence if there was another referendum. Is that still the case?

David: Sorry if it sounds like I'm dodging the issue, but now I'm chairing this assembly, now that's finally been announced, I am genuinely going to be entirely neutral. I am going to, like every other member of the assembly, listen to the expert opinion. And anyway, at the end of this process, we're not, in my view - but again, it's in the hands of assembly members - going to come to a view on whether Scotland should be independent or not. It's to look at a variety of constitutional options, given the problems that the assembly itself identifies as facing Scotland.

Rona: Away from the citizens' assembly, this is your last week in Brussels as an MEP. You failed to get elected last month. What are your feelings this week as your time as an MEP draws to a close?

David: I have to say, very mixed. I feel very privileged to have represented Scotland for 35 years here in the European parliament. But of course, no one likes losing and when you leave any position you've had for such a long time, it's very sad to be saying goodbye to people. And just walking the streets and the corridors this week, I've come across so many people I will miss in the coming months and years. But I am trying to be very positive about it, because I just think I've been extremely honoured to have had this opportunity.

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