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SNP co-leader walks out of council group as recriminations and bitterness erupt after two suspended councillors were reinstated

By Scott Maclennan

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The lifting of suspensions on two councillors has triggered a full blown civil war within Highland Council’s SNP group after the former co-leader left with two others to form their block within the local authority.

Councillors Ron MacWilliam (Inverness Ness-side) and Kirsteen Currie (North, West and Central Sutherland) – both known as vocal champions of their wards – had been suspended during the lockdown but tonight they were reinstated.

The move did not go down well with everyone and co-leader Maxine Smith (Cromarty Firth) resigned along with Pauline Munro (Cromarty Firth) and Liz MacDonald (Nairn and Cawdor) to form their own group Independents for Independence.

Earlier, Caithness councillor Raymond Bremner chaired a meeting that decided to reinstate the two suspended councillors to the group.

He said: “After a long discussion, we decided by consensus to welcome both Ron and Kirsteen back to the group. It is hoped that we can put past differences aside and move forward as a united cohesive group to drive forward our mutual cause of independence.”

But in an email seen by the Courier, the defecting councillors claimed: “It is understood that this was on the direction of the SNP HQ, not via a vote within the group itself, which would normally be the case.”

Cllr Ron MacWilliam.
Cllr Ron MacWilliam.

Cllr MacWilliam expressed disappointment at the turn of events: “The last few months have been incredibly stressful for everyone and some have handled that pressure better than others.

“The pandemic has clearly tested the capacity of those in leadership roles to the maximum. Whilst we may never know the true intentions of the individuals who have decided today to leave the SNP I believe that the group will now be able to operate as a stronger and more effective opposition.

“I am relieved to have been vindicated in my political approach and it is clear that I should never have been suspended from the group to which I was elected. I wish my former colleagues well in their new roles.”

Cllr Currie also looked to turn a page, saying: “It’s very sad that when the public health situation in Scotland is worsening that some elected members choose to ostracise themselves and publicise their own agenda.

“The voters of the Highlands deserve leaders who can communicate, scrutinise and fight for their constituents.

“Communication from many has been sadly lacking, however, I hope a line has been drawn and that councillors from across the chamber can come together and work for better outcomes for all Highland citizens.”

But the level of bitterness that has developed within the council’s SNP group showed in some of the comments released by the defecting trio.

Cllr Smith said: “It is with a heavy heart I find myself in a position where being in the SNP is so uncomfortable that I can no longer bear it. There are several others who feel the same.

“Things have changed so much in that it’s full of individuals who only care about their own personal upward political careers and others who attach themselves to those factions.

“Now all I see in my group are the hard working sincere SNP councillors being down trodden by those who are trying to get themselves noticed to forward their own political careers. This is so false and not why they were voted in. Their constituents want them to work for them not for their own ends.

“I’ve always been a team player and as leader, tried to help everyone. I’m now thoroughly disillusioned and am unable to sit back and watch the internal destruction of a party I joined nearly three decades ago. I have to get out.”

Cllr Munro added: “My reasons for leaving are quite simple. I simply want to get on with the job I was elected to do which I may add is hard enough without having to be pulled into internal disputes.

“I am quite happy to be leave and work alongside my fellow colleagues without having to feel part of a broken or unhappy SNP group.”

Finally, Cllr MacDonald, the SNP’s longest serving Highland Councillor after 21 years at the local authority said: “It is with a heavy heart that I would like to let you know that I have resigned from the SNP Group which means I am no longer an SNP member, I will continue in local government as a local Independent councillor.

“It has been a tremendous privilege to be the longest standing SNP councillor since 1999, but over the last few years petty arguments within the branch and at the council group level have been an unnecessary and upsetting distraction from my job as a councillor representing and standing up for Nairn.”

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