NICOLA Sturgeon has opened her evidence to the Alex Salmond inquiry with a robust defence of her own actions and a searing and emotional attack on her predecessor.

Her voice close to cracking at times, the First Minister said she had “searched her soul many times” about her conduct over the last three years.

However, in his six hours of testimony, Mr Salmond showed “not a single word of regret, reflection or even acknowledgement” of his "deeply inappropriate behaviour" with women.

In her opening remarks to MSPs, she also dismissed claims of a plot against him as “absurd”, and saying he haad simply been the subject of complants and an independent police and prosecution procedure.

“As First Minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his  status and connections to get what he wants," she said.

She also apologised to the two female civil servants whose complaints against Mr Salmond in early 2018 sparked a Government probe which went badly wrong, acknowledging there had been a serious mistake. 

Accusing her former friend and colleague of a cold-hearted lack of contrition, she said: “In all the legitimate consideration of this, sometimes the personal and human elements of this situation are lost.

“Alex spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him, and I don’t doubt that. I have thought often about the impact on him. 

“He was someone I cared about for a long time. 

“Maybe that’s why on Friday I found myself searching for any sign, any sign at all, that he recognised how difficult this had been for others too.

“First and foremost for women who believed his behaviour towards them was inappropriate.

“But also for those of us who have campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend, and who now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.”

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She said: “I feel I must rebut the absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or a s plot against Alex Salmond. That claim is not based in any fact. 

“What happened is this and it is simple.

“A number of women made serious complains about Alex Salmond’s behaviour.

“The Government, despite the mistake it undoubtedly made, tried to do the right thing.

“As First Minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his  status and connections to get what he wants.

“The Police conducted an independent criminal investigation.

“The Crown Office, as it does in prosecutions every single day of the week, considered the evidence and decided there was a case to answer. A court and jury did their jobs, and now this committee and an independent investigation [on the Scottish ministerial code] are considering what happened and why.”

She went on: ““That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question, beyond question.

“But I know, just from what he told me, that his behaviour was not always appropriate.

“Yet across six hours of testimony there was not a single word of regret, reflection of even simple acknowledgment of that.

“I can only hope that in private the reality might be different.

“Today though is about my actions. 

“I have never claimed in this or anything else to be infallible. I have searched my soul on all of this, many many times over.

“It may very well be that I didn’t get everything right. That’s for others to judge.”
But in one of the most invidious political and personal situations I have ever faced, I believe I acted properly and appropriately and that overall I made the best judgements I could.

“For anyone, at least anyone willing top listen with an open mind, that is what I will seek to demonstrate today.”

The cross-party committee is looking at how the Scottish Government bungled its probe into sexual misconduct allegations levelled against Mr Salmond in 2018.

The former First Minister had the exercise set aside in a judicial review by showing it had been tainted by apparent bias, a flaw that left taxpayers with a £512,000 bill for his costs.

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After the Government's defence collapsed, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she had three meetings with Mr Salmond in 2018, while he was under investigation by her officials.

She insisted she took the meetings in her capacity as SNP leader, and so no Government records were kept.

She insisted she took the meetings in her capacity as SNP leader, and so no Government records were kept.

She said the first she knew Mr Salmond was under investigation was when he told her himself at her home on April 2, 2018, and that she hadn't known what he wanted to discuss, although she thought he might be about to resign over a sexual scandal.

However it later emerged Mr Salmond's former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, had told her about the Government investigation at a previous meeting in her Holyrood office, on March 29, 2018.

Mr Aberdein has also said the name of a complainer was shared with him by one of Ms Sturgeon's officials.

Ms Sturgeon claims she "forgot" about this first meeting, despite the explosive content, and that it had been fleeting and opportunistic.

Mr Salmond claimed Ms Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by misleading Holyrood about the nature of both meetings.

On Tuesday, two of Mr Salmond’s former special advisers, spindoctor Kevin Pringle and MSP-turned-advocate Duncan Hamilton, corroborated Mr Salmond’s version.

They said Mr Aberdein told them in advance that the March 29 was to discuss the complaints against Mr Salmond, and that Mr Aberdein also told them one of the complainer’s name had been given to him by a person in the Government, a breach of confidentiality.

Mr Hamilton, who accompanied Mr Salmond to Ms Sturgeon’s Glasgow home on April 2, also said the agenda was arranged in advance - the complaints investigation.

He said: “When we arrived, everyone in the room knew exactly why we were there. 

“No introduction to the subject was needed and no one was in any doubt what we were there to discuss."

Mr Hamilton, an officer of the court, also said Ms Sturgeon offered to intervene in the probe, something she denied to parliament.

He said: “My clear recollection is that her words were ‘If it comes to it, I will intervene.’ 

“From a legal perspective, that was the most important aspect of the meeting. I therefore remember it clearly.”

He said she later changed her mind, which came as a surprise to him.

His statement was in complete contrast to evidence given under oath to the inquiry by Ms Sturgeon’s husband, who said last month that, despite Mr Salmond living in Aberdeenshire, he thought he was just “popping in for a chat”.

Peter Murrell, who is also the chief executive of the SNP, said: “I wasn’t aware that the meeting was for a purpose. I just thought he was popping in for a chat about any matter.”