THE former chair of the Yes campaign has defended Nicola Sturgeon over criticism that she is weakening her commitment to hold a second independence referendum.

Dennis Canavan spoke out after the First Minister said on Monday night that she would do “all in my power” to hold indyref by the end of 2023.

Her wording in the STV interview on Scotland Tonight was seized on by commentators on both the pro-independence and the pro-Union sides as suggesting she was backtracking on her previously stated timetable.

But speaking exclusively to The National, Canavan – a former Labour MP and MSP as well as a former independent MSP – disagreed. He said he was confident the First Minister shared his confidence that a second independence referendum would take place by the end of next year as planned.

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“Having listened carefully to Nicola Sturgeon’s interview on Scotland Tonight I did not detect any weakening of her previous commitment on the timing of the referendum,” he said.

“The First Minister gave a clear commitment to do 'everything within her power' to hold indyref2 by the end of next year. The First Minister has many talents but she is not omnipotent and she is not clairvoyant.

“Sometimes unforeseen events can affect the plans of politicians. For example, a severe worsening of the current pandemic could affect the timetable for indyref2 but I am confident that the First Minister shares my hope that that will not happen and that indyref2 will go forward as planned.”

The National: SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon spoke with STV's Scotland Tonight about intentions for indyref2SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon spoke with STV's Scotland Tonight about intentions for indyref2

Speaking to STV on Monday night, Sturgeon said she will do “everything that is within my power” to give Scotland a vote on its independence in 2023. However, she stopped short of saying exactly when legislation tp designed to enable a vote could be brought to the Scottish Parliament.

She told the programme: “I intend to do everything that is within my power to enable that referendum to happen before the end of 2023.

“And we will set out exactly what that means in terms of the date of introduction of legislation when we’ve taken the detailed decisions around that but more importantly, well it’s not more importantly because obviously enabling the referendum was important, but actually what I think is much more exciting as we come out of the pandemic, and certainly the acute phase of the pandemic, are the opportunities that come with Scotland being independent.”

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Sturgeon has previously pledged to hold indyref2 in 2023 as long as the pandemic allows it to be run safely.

Speaking to the SNP’s conference in November, the party leader said: “I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023.”

Some said that the language used by the First Minister implied a backpedalling on such previous assertions.

James Kelly, the ScotGoesPop blogger and member of Alba’s ruling committee, commented: “The clarity of language was becoming more encouraging, but this is a step backwards.

“‘Everything in my power’ could be code for just asking for a Section 30 yet again, and helplessly taking no as an answer (while muttering ‘this is totally unsustainable’).”

Commenting on the First Minister’s wording, the pro-Union Times columnist Alex Massie noted on Twitter: “You will note this is a significant retreat from previous assertions there *will* be a referendum next year.”

The “Plan A” to indyref2 would involve asking the UK Government to grant a Section 30 order, giving Holyrood the power to hold a referendum. This is the method Alex Salmond was able to use to hold a vote 2014. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he will not agree to a new vote. It is unclear if his successor would adopt the same stance.

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Should Johnson or a successor fail to agree a new referendum, the First Minster has pledged to hold a vote using Holyrood powers. Such a move could set the stage for a potential Supreme Court battle over whether Edinburgh can legally hold a second independence vote.

In October last year, Sturgeon said she hoped the Covid-19 pandemic would have receded sufficiently by early spring 2022 for “concrete decisions” on the timing of a new vote.