Updated: I now understand senior political figures will call for an inquiry into the handling of the meeting on Uist and who was present as well as into the actions of the civil servant who allegedly handed over responsibility for the invitations to the SNP.
Why were non-SNP candidates not invited?
THE Returning Officer in the Western Isles is coming under pressure to apologise after it emerged he attended a meeting with the Scottish transport minister where SNP candidate Angus Macneil was present but no other parliamentary candidates were invited.
Non-SNP councillors and transport campaigners were not invited amid claims the invitations were actually handled by the SNP office in Stornoway.
Although Returning Officer Malcolm Burr insists he was invited by the a civil servant Scottish Government he has still not explained why he stayed while Angus Macneil, the sitting MP, was the only political candidate present.
The row emerged after South Uist councillor Ronnie Mackinnon called for an inquiry into how Returning Officer attended the meeting “which broke every law in the electoral book” and from which he was excluded.
The meeting on with minister Derek Mackay on Wednesday, which was ostensibly about ferry services and other transport concerns, was held at the offices of public landowner Storas Uibhist in Daliburgh. Present was the SNP candidate for the Western Isles, Angus Macneil, and the local MSP, Alasdair Allan and a few council representatives, including Mr Burr, who is the council chief executive.
Labour councillor MacKinnon, who has been prominent in the campaign to improve ferry services for South Uist, said: “When I learned of the proposed meeting, I phoned Transport Scotland in Edinburgh to ask why I had not been invited and whether I could attend.
“I was told that the meeting was being organised by Councillor Donald Manford, leader of the SNP Group on Comhairle (council), and that I should contact the SNP office in Stornoway for an invitation.”
The councillor said: “At that point, he could have been in no doubt that the meeting was a party political stunt.” However, the council says its invitations came from Transport Scotland, part of the Scottish Government.
MacKinnon says that the chief executive – who is also the returning officer for the constituency – told him he was “surprised” to learn of Councillor Manford’s role as organiser.
“This was a party political event in the interests of Mr MacNeil who has hitherto shown extraordinarily little interest in the issue of ferry services from Lochboisdale. It is totally inappropriate for the returning officer, or indeed the council, to participate in a meeting which involves one election candidate but to which others have not been invited. This was a clumsy stitch-up which deserves to backfire.”
Cllr MacKinnon said that Storas Uibhist should also examine the role of its own chief executive, Huw Francis, a prominent supporter of independence during the referendum campaign. Labour claims Mr Francis liaised with Councillor Manford to organise the meeting.
A spokesperson for Transport Minister Derek Mackay said: “Labour should apologise for their shameful and dishonest smears against local council officials who have no right of reply. The ministerial meeting was not party political, indeed, it was attended by the leader of the council who is not SNP. The Transport Minister’s visit was inclusive and extensive and Cllr Mackinnon himself attended two of these meetings and, incidentally, never made any mention or request to attend the meeting at Storas Uibhist which he was aware of. Had Cllr Mackinnon asked to attend he would have been very welcome. It is regrettable Labour want to create fights instead of working with us to create jobs, secure investment and improve local services.”
In response to questions, Western Isles Council insists the meeting was not organised by the SNP, but by Scottish Government. It says it was invited to attend this and other meetings in Uist by the civil servant with responsibility for island issues.
“Who else was invited was entirely up to Scottish Government and the community groups involved.”
It added that it had no knowledge of other attendees, and who had or had not been invited. It said the council would assist Councillor Mackinnon in pursuing the advice which he received, which was not consistent with the terms of the invitation to the Comhairle’s Leader and officers.
The council response was at pains to point out: “The meeting was also attended by the council leader, who is not an SNP councillor.” However, the council leader, who is an independent member, does not have the duty of impartiality of a Returning Officer and is free to attend any meeting he wants without having to be concerned if he is too close to any party.
Claims emerged from local Labour activists that the chief executive, who they say has been a blatant nationalist fanatic for some time, is now less professional than he used to be in distancing himself from mucky party politics. The council respnded: “The council completely rejects this statement, its implications and any allegations as to Mr Burr’s professionalism.”
Transport Minister Derek Mackay’s office then waded into the row demanding Labour apologise for “their shameful and dishonest smears” against local council officials who, they said, had no right of reply.
“The ministerial meeting was not party political, indeed, it was attended by the leader of the council who is not SNP. The Transport Minister’s visit was inclusive and extensive and Cllr Mackinnon himself attended two of these meetings and, incidentally, never made any mention or request to attend the meeting at Storas Uibhist which he was aware of.
“Had Cllr Mackinnon asked to attend he would have been very welcome. It is regrettable Labour want to create fights instead of working with us to create jobs, secure investment and improve local services.”
Meanwhile, the comhairle has failed to explain why Mr Burr still went to the meeting after being warned by Cllr Mackinnon that it was an SNP stunt and also why he stayed knowing the SNP candidate was there while no other parliamentary candidates were invited.