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Connery and Ewing at loggerheads over SNP ex-leader's Kosovo speech

SIR Sean Connery and Winnie Ewing, two of Scotland's most eminent nationalists, have publicly disagreed on the wisdom of Alex Salmond's controversial Kosovo speech during the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections.

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The continuing power of his remarks to provoke disagreement in the SNP's ranks is demonstrated again tonight in The Salmond Years, a one-hour documentary produced by Bernard Ponsonby to be screened on Scottish and Grampian TV. Mr Salmond's comments in which he described the bombing by Nato of Kosovo as an ''unpardonable folly'' were said by critics to have damaged the SNP in the election, although the party emerged as the official opposition in Scotland with 35 seats. He also described the Nato action as being of ''dubious legality'' and claimed it had made the suffering of those it was intended to help worse instead of better. It is understood that Mr Salmond, who has kept a public silence about the speech since it was broadcast, changed a critical passage at the last moment without consulting colleagues, including the then party chief executive, Michael Russell, who were later forced to defend it in public. The ''unpardonable folly'' comment caused Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, to denounce Mr Salmond as the ''toast of Belgrade'', but others argued that he was speaking only the truth and was right to speak out. In the programme, which examines Mr Salmond's record in the SNP including his decade as its most successful leader, he is asked if he regretted any of the language used, and replies: ''Yeah. If I had the broadcast again I might have changed a few of the phrases, but I don't regret the broadcast. I didn't really feel I would be able to easily live with myself if I'd gone on to that broadcast and said nothing because I was frightened to say what I believe in.'' Sir Sean, a major benefactor of the SNP, comes to Mr Salmond's defence. ''He voiced an opinion when it was going crazy in Kosovo, knowing that it would cost votes, and in retrospect I think he was absolutely right.'' Mrs Ewing, the party president, takes a different line, suggesting that Mr Salmond's comments damaged the SNP and would have been better left unspoken. ''It lost us votes and seats,'' she says. ''But he was right in what he said.'' The speech was followed by a dramatic System Three poll for The Herald, showing Nationalist support in free fall. The poll caused the SNP to rewrite its election strategy overnight, a move that proved successful and led to a late return of voter sympathy. Mr Salmond also takes responsibility publicly for the conduct of the campaign which caused internal divisions in the SNP. Some senior nationalists believed it was badly managed and conceived. ''I don't criticise the campaign organisation or platform,'' Mr Salmond says. ''I'm leader of the party - obviously there were shortcomings. I'm responsible for whatever shortcomings there were.'' The former leader gives no further clue about his reason for stepping down. He repeats that 10 years at the helm was enough. Although he now intends to quit Holyrood and remain at Westminster, he hints that he might return to Edinburgh if the SNP wins the next Scottish Parliament election. ''I would never say never again,'' he smiles. Sir Sean says he has an ''absolute conviction'' that Scotland will be independent in his lifetime, and reveals that he discussed his support for the Yes-Yes campaign in the devolution referendum with Tony Blair. At their first meeting Mr Blair said he was serious about a parliament for Scotland. When Sir Sean suggested it would be the first step to independence, the prime minister told him: ''You don't understand. This is going to unite the country.''

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