Nicola Sturgeon stands by Scottish Greens despite party's 'extremist' views on Israel

Nicola Sturgeon sat down with Scotland Correspondent Peter Smith, ahead of the SNP conference. Credit: PA

The SNP conference has become like a stadium rock concert in recent years.

Huge crowds queuing up to get in, placards with messages of support for the performers on stage, and an eager anticipation for the headline act: Nicola Sturgeon’s big speech.

This year’s conference is less glamorous. It’s being hosted online.

It’s also just days after the SNP already announced their plans for the next 12 months in the Programme for Government, and we already know what Ms Sturgeon is likely to focus on.

On Friday, we had the chance to sit down with Scotland’s first minister to dig into the detail of her plans for Scotland and Indyref2, as well as other developments in Scottish politics.

Three things we learned:

1. Scottish independence remains Ms Sturgeon's top priority

After “Covid recovery,” having independence is still top of Ms Sturgeon’s ‘to do’ list.

It is her big idea - and the SNP’s raison d’être. She told us her intention is to hold a referendum before the end of 2023.

That will likely get the online participants in her conference applauding in their own living rooms when she once again makes that announcement this weekend. The first minister will reaffirm how it’s definitely coming this time, just bear with her, she won’t let you down.

But it still doesn’t answer substantively exactly how Ms Sturgeon intends to deliver them this chance to vote when the UK government keeps saying 'no'.

2. The courts could decide if a referendum is held - not Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon

Rejection by Boris Johnson won’t stop Ms Sturgeon’s push to have this referendum.

The precedent for having an independence vote tells us the Scottish first minister must write to the UK prime minister requesting permission to host the vote.

This is called a Section 30 - and, if granted, would transfer the legal powers temporarily to enable Ms Sturgeon to deliver Indyref2.

Sturgeon: 'Will Boris Johnson make a legal challenge to stop another referendum? That's for him to decide...'

But she has repeated that she will press on regardless of whether Mr Johnson agrees or not - and she told us “it will be up to him” to stop it with legal action.

It increasingly looks like the case for Scotland having an independence referendum is decided not by politicians but in the courts.

3. Ms Sturgeon could be opening herself up to controversy by teaming up with Greens

The SNP’s new partnership (definitely don’t call it a coalition) deal with the Scottish Greens leaves Ms Sturgeon exposed to controversies she’s been careful to avoid.

She has given the Scottish Greens two ministerial positions in her government.

The trouble for her is these two ministers, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, are co-leaders of a party that has not endorsed, and still refuses to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

The party has voted in favour of a motion that describes Israel as a “racist state“ based on “Jewish supremacy” and calls Zionism a racist endeavour.

Ms Sturgeon told us she was aware of these concerns but hasn’t actually raised it with the Scottish Greens directly.

”I would hope everyone would sign up to the [IHRA] definition,” she says, and “the Scottish government’s position on anti-Semitism is clear and that’s the one all ministers are expected to sign up to and agree to".

Asked if the Scottish Greens could continue in her government if they don’t accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism, her response was clear: “They are in my government.” This is not going down well with Jewish community leaders.

Sammy Stein, chair of Glasgow Friends of Israel, said: “It is very concerning that they are allowing the Greens to join the government when they have such extremist views toward the state of Israel and Zionism."

He added: “This issue of the Scottish Greens joining the government has been raised with the FM by the Jewish Community.

"I am therefore surprised to hear her admitting that she does not know what the Scottish Greens position is on the IHRA definition and she has 'not specifically' raised it with them.

"If not 'specifically raised', how has it been raised if and if not at all, why has she been prepared to offer them a role in the Scottish Government.

"She confirms the Scottish Government position and that she expects all ministers to sign up to and agree to.

Sturgeon: 'I'm not entirely sure what the Green position on that is...'

"It would be important to know how long the FM will give the two Greens to adopt and agree to the Scottish Government's position on the definition of antisemitism.”

Chair of Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, Nicola Livingston, told ITV News she has twice raised concerns about Scottish Greens to the first minister.

She said: "When we published a manifesto raising issues of concern to the Jewish community in Scotland, it was endorsed by all four of the main parties in Holyrood with the exception of one party: the Scottish Greens.

"They haven't even responded to us. So this isn't just about the definition of anti-Semitism, it's about this one party - the Scottish Greens - apparently not being interested in engaging with us on the issues of concern to Jewish people in Scotland."

A spokesperson for the Scottish Green Party said: “The Scottish Green Party abhors anti-Semitism. “There is absolutely no place for any anti-Jewish prejudice in society. Green politics is rooted in environmentalism, peace, social justice and democracy. “Our party’s position on international affairs, including Palestine and Israel, is guided by these pillars. We will continue to raise our voice in support of a human rights based outcome that allows everyone in the region to live in peace, free from oppression or occupation. “We are happy to discuss this with anyone with concerns.”

It may be that First Minister Sturgeon takes them up on that offer.

Scottish Conservative Eastwood MSP Jackson Carlaw said: “This is a total dereliction of duty from Nicola Sturgeon. Scotland’s Jewish communities will be appalled that she has failed to challenge her new Green Ministers on their extreme views.

“They raised these concerns directly with her ahead of the SNP-Green agreement being announced.

“They should have been asked to clarify these views before entering Government, but it is clear this simply isn’t a priority for the First Minister.

“The Greens views are not fit for office and Nicola Sturgeon should have condemned them at the earliest opportunity. Instead, it appears it hasn’t even crossed her mind to do so.

“I wrote to her earlier this week outlining the grave concerns of our Jewish communities that the Greens are now at the heart of Government.

“I will continue to seek urgent reassurances that the SNP remain committed to the internationally recognised definitions of antisemitism, and that Nicola Sturgeon will belatedly unequivocally distance herself from the views of her nationalist allies."