A SECOND independence referendum could take place before the end of next year, the SNP's Constitution Secretary has said.

Michael Russell insisted there must be another vote if the Scottish people "wish it to happen". 

Critics called his comments "reckless and irresponsible" and pointed to the ongoing pandemic. 

Mr Russell told the BBC: "If the Scottish people endorse that and wish it to happen, then it must happen. 

"I'm not going to do anything other than assume that it will happen in those circumstances. 

"If the Scottish people speak, then they have to be heard, and there will need to be a referendum. 

"That could take place, I'm quite sure, before the end of next year."

Mr Russell said legislation is still needed to set a date and organise the question.

Polls show the SNP are on course for a majority at the Holyrood election in May, while support for independence is rising.

Pamela Nash, chief executive of pro-UK campaign group Scotland in Union, said: “These are reckless and irresponsible comments from an SNP minister.

“We are in the midst of a devastating pandemic that is costing lives and it will take years for our NHS and economy to recover.

“The last referendum campaign paralysed politics, and to go through that again at this time would be devastating for Scotland.

“Rather than seek to divide Scotland like this, we have a brighter future as part of the UK.”