SCOTLAND’S Citizens Assembly has been hit by a new row over its credibility after a senior Nationalist's business adviser was hired to find its members.

Mark Diffley, who works for Progress Scotland, which was set up by former SNP depute leader Angus Robertson, will recruit the forum’s 120 members.

Progress Scotland, which held a fund-raising fringe event at the last SNP conference, says its aim is to “help prepare the case for Scotland to progress towards independence”.

The Tories said the connections would “increase suspicion” about the Assembly.

Scotland in Union called the arrangement “highly questionable” and said there could be no hint of a conflict of interest around the Assembly.

The SNP Government said Mr Diffley had met "strict criteria to prevent any potential conflict of interest" and his work for Progress Scotland had "no bearing" on his role putting together the Assembly.

Mr Diffley denied there was a conflict of interest and said he had no axe to grind, having worked for almost all Scotland’s political parties over 20 years. 

READ MORE: SNP heavyweight forms polling group to 'help prepare' case for independence

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 that it is a Nationalist front.

SNP MP Joanna Cherry QC called it the “perfect way” to advance independence, irritating its chair, the former Scottish Labour MEP David Martin.

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 Assembly, with the Tories urging other Unionists to boycott it.

Mr Diffley is a highly respected pollster who was previously director of Ipsos Mori Scotland before setting up his own business in 2017.

He was the lead pollster for the UK Government in the run-up to the 2014 referendum.

His one-man company Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research Ltd, in which he is the sole director and shareholder, will be paid £22,475 to find the Assembly members after beating three other bidders in an open tender process.

He is also the research and polling adviser to Progress Scotland, which Mr Robertson set up to better understand public opinion and push independence.

Mr Robertson was the SNP MP for Moray from 2001 to 2017 before losing to Tory Douglas Ross, and served as the party’s Westminster leader for his last decade there.

He was also depute leader of the SNP from 2016 to 2018, and has long been a key campaign strategist for the SNP.

He launched Progress Scotland alongside Mr Diffley in February this year.

READ MORE: Angus Robertson: How Progress Scotland is strengthening case for Yes

Mr Robertson said at the time: “With the help and support of subscribers we will research the opinion of people in Scotland and test their appetite to emulate the most successful small countries in the world.

“We will provide insight and analysis on what is needed to persuade people on the case for Scotland to make progress.”

Mr Diffley said at the time: “I am going to conduct the polls and research for Progress Scotland and I am very excited to see what we will find.

“With so much going on with Brexit and the debate about Scotland's future, now is the right time to ask people about their opinions, how they are changing and why. It makes sense to try and understand people's hopes and concerns especially at this time of change."

Scottish Conservative chief whip Maurice Golden said: “Mark Diffley is a respected pollster, and has been for some time in Scotland.

“But given his new role with the nationalist movement, this appointment will only serve to increase suspicion about the Citizens’ Assembly.

“The SNP is doing very little to persuade people this will be anything other than an independence talking shop.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “It is highly questionable that the SNP Scottish Government has appointed Mark Diffley to this role when he is currently a public figurehead of an anti-UK think tank.

“There is absolutely no doubt that Mark is an experienced independent pollster and very much respected for his professionalism in Scotland.

“However, for the Citizens Assembly to have the trust of the public, there can be no hint of a conflict of interest.

“It is already widely seen as yet another SNP vehicle for breaking up the UK, and this appointment by the Scottish Government will just add to public distrust of this project."

Mr Diffley reacted angrily to Unionist blogger Kevin Hague on Twitter after the latter questioned Mr Diffley’s appointment.

Mr Diffley wrote: “If you bothered to check you'd know I have worked across the political divide my whole career, including  for the UK Govt. during the indyref (who existed expressly to make a case for the union!) and have worked with parties of all colours in Scotland for nearly 20 yrs. The notion that I (or others) can't use their expertise to offer impartial advice without fear or favour is just nonsense.”

Mr Diffley later told the Herald he advised Progress Scotland “at arm’s length” and was not a member of the SNP.

He said: “I have a business which I run. I take on projects with clients from all over, from government, from the private sector, from the third sector, and I do so without fear of favour. 

"I will always be independent in the true meaning of the word, and will remain so.  I think over the years my work speaks for itself in that regard. I have nothing to hide.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Following a competitive tendering process Mark Diffley Consultancy and Research has been chosen to recruit members of the Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland.

“The company met all the contract conditions, including strict criteria to prevent any potential conflict of interest, and was selected on the basis of quality and cost.

“Mr Diffley has worked with all the main political parties in a polling or wider research capacity and conducted polling research for the UK Cabinet Office in the lead up to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum.

“His company’s contractual agreement with Progress Scotland will have no bearing on its work for the Citizens’ Assembly.”