AN adviser on the Scottish Government’s new Citizens Assembly has said he was left “fuming” after a senior SNP MP said it was the “perfect way” to advance independence.

Dr Oliver Escobar suggested the comment by Joanna Cherry QC last week was so unhelpful it had made the forum's work “ten times harder”.

He told the Herald such comments made it harder because understanding of the Assembly was still in its infancy and it had yet to gain public trust.

That meant people might not distinguish between Ms Cherry speaking as a politician with one point of view, and the entirely separate, independent organisation of the Assembly.

Announced by Nicola Sturgeon in April as a way of thrashing out the long-term challenges facing Scotland, the Assembly has been dogged by claims it is a Nationalist front.

Based on the Irish models which led to referendums legalising same-sex marriage and abortion, the Assembly will recruit its first 100 members and 20 substitutes over the summer, then deliberate over six weekends from later October to late April.

In Ireland, cross-party buy-in and independence were vital factors in the exercise’s success.

However the Scottish Tories and Scottish LibDems have already said they will have nothing to do with the Scottish version, with Unionist campaigners urging a boycott.

Last week its first co-convener David Martin, the former Scottish Labour MEP, appealed for cooperation and insisted the forum would be independent from the SNP Government.

However a day later Ms Cherry, the SNP’s justice spokeswoman at Westminster, fuelled Unionist suspicions by saying the Assembly was part of a wider independence effort.

In an online video, she described it as “the perfect way to move Scotland on from the current state of Brexit paralysis created by westminster and to move us towards independence”.

READ MORE: SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC says Citizens Assembly is 'perfect way' to advance independence

Her Twitter post was advertising an Electoral Reform Society event at Edinburgh University tomorrow about the Assembly in which she and Dr Escobar will participate.

Dr Escobar, an expert in public policy at the Edinburgh, has advised SNP Brexit Secretary Michael Russell on the importance of “building cross-party support” for the Assembly.

Also expected to be the lead researcher on the body, he told Scotland and Sunday that Ms Cherry’s comment was “completely against the ethos” of such assembles.

“I'm kind of fuming around that,” adding an open-minded and unbiased approach was the "fundamental underpinning of the legitimacy of this body”.

He said: "I wouldn't be involved in advising, and hopefully soon to be confirmed in doing research around this, if I believed that this was an already forgone conclusion.

"So earlier this week, when comments were made by a very prominent member of the SNP, it was perhaps the most unhelpful contribution that has been made so far to this process.

“I understand why this happens - it happens because they're talking to their own supporters, they frame it in a way that is appealing to them. But it completely goes against the ethos.

"The person who made these comments has actually nothing to do with the Citizens Assembly. She's not involved in organising it, she's not involved in any of the advisory boards. She's just someone who has advocated for Citizens' Assemblies because she's been inspired by the Irish example."

Professor David Farrell of University College Dublin, research director on the first Irish assembly, also told the paper that perceived bias was “a serious risk” to the new project.

He said: “I think there's a serious risk if there isn't some buy-in from most of the parties that it could undermine it. That's a serious risk.

"In both of the Irish processes, pretty much all of the parties were able to buy in - and in some cases quite reluctantly in the beginning. But I think that was so important.

“You can see it with social media commentary already that there are people who are seeing this as a stitchup which is what you get early on. The best way to reduce that criticism is to say 'Look, we have some buy-in from all parties.

"We had much the same when we were talking about abortion because that would have been similarly an extremely controversial topic.

"So what's really important is that it's seen to be independent, objective, fully transparent."

READ MORE: Citizens Assembly hit by recruitment delay amid Unionist calls for boycott

Dr Escobar told the Herald: “What I really want to highlight is that there is a distinction, and it’s an important distinction, between public leaders like Joanna, who are advocates and supporters for this kind of methodology for involving the public, versus those who are actually impartial organisers who will have the responsibility to deliver this important process, and she’s not part of that.

"I don’t think that that’s a distinction that has been made properly.

“It’s all coming out as an attack on Joanna. To be honest, you know, these things very rarely get visibility, these kind of alternative forums of democractic engagement.

“Therefore it is important that leaders like Joanna and others come into that space and speak to their own supporters, which I think is what Joanna was saying when she said she was hopeful this is going to help the path to independence.

“But the problem is that there is a public perception that this is just an SNP thing. But actually the Assembly is going to be independent from government.

“It’s important we are not mixing those who are advocates and public leaders who are calling for this, because they hope it’s going to help in their own cause, but that is not necessarily the agenda of the assembly, and certainly the organisers are a different sort of group.”

He went on: “I do think that comments like that, because there is no public perception of the distinction between Joanna and the people actually involved in developing the Assembly, I think it’s true that these comments at this stage can make things much harder for people to really find some legitimate ground the Assembly to do its work properly with public trust.

“But, Joanna, you know, in that sense I don’t regret saying that. It does make it harder, until it will begin to distinguish between those who are speaking about the Assembly and calling for it, and those who are actually going to deliver an impartial process.”

Asked if he was concerned he had been misquoted, he said: "Speaking to the Scotsman I never mentioned Joanna’s name, but obviously it was between the lines.

"I did say last week there were unhelpful comments that are making things ten times harder because we are not yet at the stage [of] a mature public conversation about what the Assembly could accomplish if given the chance. 

“It just comes across as very personal, but then again I’m not that naive not to understand how things come out.

“Unless the Assembly has the trust of everyone across the ideological spectrum then it’s not going to work. It’s important that people like Joanne speak up, but it’s just about understanding that she’s not speaking up for various assemblies, she’s speaking up from her elected politician position and public leader position rather than anything to do with the actual delivery of the Assembly.

"I welcome contributions from politicians, but it’s just about how they choose to frame it.”

In a series of tweets this morning, Ms Cherry said she stood by her comment, and said it was part of the “joy of democracy” that others might disagree.

However she also called for people to approach the Assembly with an “open mind”.

She told the Herald: "Of course I’m always interested in independence. That’s hardly a revelation. But the Citizens Assembly is about looking at policy issues which interest everyone regardless of their stance on Independence. The remit at present is wide.

"There are all sorts of future challenges the assembly could look at. Having pioneered this exciting initiative it would be surprising if I wanted to undermine it and I don’t.

"If there is a threat to the integrity of the CitizensAssembly it comes from those boycotting it and misrepresenting its purpose. So I fully endorse David Martin’s call to those planning a boycott to think again."