NICOLA Sturgeon has been narrowly cleared of breaching the Scottish Ministerial Code by an independent adviser, relieving pressure on her to resign.

Former Irish prosecutor James Hamilton said the First Minister had not violated the ethics code over the Alex Salmond affair.

Referring to the four aspects he investigated, Mr Hamitlon concluded: "I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the provisions of the Ministerial Code in respect of any of these matters."

However, Mr Hamilton's report did not give the First Minister a completely clean bill of health.

He said she had given MSPs an "incomplete narrative of events" by failing to tell them about a key meeting, and it was only because he deemed it "a genuine failure of recollection" and "not deliberate" that it did not amount to a breach of the code.

He said it was "regrettable" that Ms Sturgeon failed to mention the meeting, adding: "It is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether they were in fact misled."

In addition, Mr Hamilton suggested one of Ms Sturgeon's officials breached the confidentiality of the Government's sexual misconduct process by naming one of the women who complained about Mr Salmond to his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, in March 2018. 

Mr Hamilton said that because four other witnesses corroborated Mr Aberdein's version of events: "I believe that Mr Aberdein's account of what was said by [the official about] the existence of the complaints and the identity of the complainers is credible".

He said: "It remains the fact that the name which Mr Aberdein was given to him was in fact the name of one of the complainers against Mr Salmond."

Ms Sturgeon urged the opposition parties to accept the findings, which means Ms Sturgeon will easily survive a Tory-led no-confidence vote tomorrow.

Ms Sturgeon said: "I welcome the conclusions of James Hamilton’s independent investigation, which are comprehensive, evidence-based and unequivocal.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon to face vote of no confidence on Tuesday

“Mr Hamilton has considered all of the allegations against me, and I am happy that his report’s findings clear me of any breach of the ministerial code.  

“I sought at every stage in this issue to act with integrity and in the public interest.  As I have previously made clear, I did not consider that I had broken the code, but these findings are official, definitive and independent adjudication of that.

“Prior to its publication, opposition politicians stressed the importance of respecting and accepting the outcome of Mr Hamilton’s independent inquiry, and I committed wholeheartedly to doing so. Now that he has reported, it is incumbent on them to do likewise.  

“Today I want, once again, to remind people that at the heart of this case were women who had the courage to come forward and complain. That they were let down by the Scottish Government’s handling of their complaints is not in dispute, and I again apologise to them for that.

“I was determined, however, at the time these complaints emerged that they should not be swept under the carpet and that I would not intervene in the process.

“Had I done so, as requested by Alex Salmond, it would – as Mr Hamilton observes – ‘undoubtedly have been seen as a partisan and political interference’ which ‘would undoubtedly have undermined public confidence in the processes of government to a much greater extent than in fact eventually happened’.

“James Hamilton was appointed by Mr Salmond as an independent adviser on the Scottish Ministerial Code. He has previously investigated a Labour First Minister of Wales, and he has applied himself to this task with rigour and diligence.  Mr Hamilton is an internationally renowned legal professional with impeccable credentials and no one should seek to suggest or imply that he has acted anything other than independently and utterly without fear or favour.

READ MORE: Exclusive poll: SNP set for knife-edge majority in Holyrood vote

“Now that this investigation is complete and its conclusions public, I will continue to devote all of my time and energy to leading Scotland, to helping the country through the pandemic, and to ensuring that as we rebuild from the hardships of the last twelve months, we do everything we can to protect jobs, support our health service and rebuild our communities for the better.”

Mr Hamilton's ruling comes on top of a separate finding by the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair, which found Ms Sturgeon misled it and hence misled parliament.

Ms Sturgeon's office dismissed the Holyrood inquiry verdict, leaked last week ahead of publication tomorrow, as partisan smears.

Mr Hamilton’s report strengthens her position enormously, as he has no political axe to grind.

His findings come ahead of a Tory-led vote of no confidence on Tuesday, which now appears doomed to fail.

Ministers who breach the ministerial code by knowingly misleading parliament are expected to resign.

In the introduction to the current edition, published in 2018, the First Minister promised she would “lead by example in following the letter and spirit” of the ethics rules.

The Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair is looking at how the Scottish Government bungled a sexual misconduct probe into claims made against him in 2018.

The former First Minister had the exercise overturned in a judicial review at the Court of Session, showing it had been “tainted by apparent bias” from the outset.

The Government’s mistakes left taxpayers with a £512,000 bill for his legal costs.

After the Government’s defence finally collapsed in January 2019, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she had had three meetings and two phone calls with Mr Salmond while he was under investigation by her officials between April and July 2018.

She said she only learned of the complaint against him at the first of these contacts, a meeting at her Glasgow home on April 2, 2018.

However, she later admitted she had learned of the issue at a meeting four days earlier with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, in her Holyrood office.

She claimed she had forgotten about this earlier meeting, despite the explosive content, because it had been a busy day at the parliament.

She also insisted to MSPs, both in the chamber and on the inquiry, that she had not intervened when Mr Salmond asked to have the complaints quietly resolved by mediation.

She said in her written evidence that she had been very clear with him on the point, and would let the inquiry run its course, not intervene or compromise it on an old friend’s behalf.

However other witnesses, including former SNP MS Duncan Hamilton QC, who was acting as Mr Salmond’s lawyer at the April 2 meeting, contradicted Ms Sturgeon

Mr Hamilton, an officer of the court, said Ms Sturgeon did offer to intervene, although she later changed her mind.

On a 5-4 vote last week, the MSPs on the inquiry preferred the evidence from Mr Hamilton and others and concluded Ms Sturgeon had given an “inaccurate account” of her actions.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: "The First Minister has been given a pass because it has been judged her 'failure of recollection' was 'not deliberate'.

“I respect Mr Hamilton and his judgement but we cannot agree with that assessment. Nicola Sturgeon did not suddenly turn forgetful.

“She is not free and clear. The First Minister promised to ‘respect the decisions’ of both inquiry reports, not to pick and choose which one suits her and try to discredit the other.

“The SNP spin machine will go into hyper-drive to again attack the committee report because they’re running scared of its findings. They have accelerated the Vote of No Confidence in Nicola Sturgeon to avoid MSPs scrutinising that report.

“As James Hamilton says, it is up to the Scottish Parliament to decide if the First Minister has been misleading.

“This report does not change the overwhelming evidence that Nicola Sturgeon misled Parliament, her government badly let women down and wasted more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.  

“If Nicola Sturgeon won’t accept responsibility, then I urge opposition parties to back our Vote of No Confidence.

“Nationalist or unionist, left or right, none of the usual political divisions matter now. Either we respect the fundamental principles of democratic accountability - or we don’t.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar added: "Unlike others, we have been clear from the outset that we would not prejudge the outcome of this inquiry.

“We acknowledge the findings of the report and we await the publication of the committee inquiry and whether its members conclude the First Minister misled parliament.

“What is clear is that this entire process has deeply damaged public trust in our politics at a time of national crisis, and there are absolutely no winners today.

“At the heart of this are two women who have been badly let down by the government, and it remains the case that nobody has taken responsibility.

“There are still questions of judgement and an urgent need to restore trust, confidence and transparency in our institutions."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The judgement from James Hamilton does not make the First Minister’s resignation automatic but no-one can deny that her errors of judgement still make resignation a live consideration.

“James Hamilton does not give the First Minister a clean bill of health.  He says it is up to parliament to determine whether it has been misled over the help that the First Minister is said to have offered Alex Salmond in her home.

“Even the most ardent SNP supporter must recognise that the women involved were let down by the government and that half a million pounds was wasted defending the indefensible in court.

“These matters will be addressed by the committee report tomorrow which will need to be considered carefully.

“Let me be clear. No-one will win from this ugly episode, certainly not Alex Salmond who has been exposed for what he really is.”

Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie MSP said: “Unlike other political parties we’ve said all along that we would respect due process, we therefore welcome the publication of James Hamilton’s independent report.

"It retains credibility in this process, unlike the parliamentary committee which has repeatedly sabotaged its own authority and betrayed the trust of original complainers.

“Mr Hamilton has clearly concluded that the First Minister did not breach the ministerial code, so we will not support the vote of no confidence being pushed by the Tories.

“In lodging a vote of no confidence before this report was published, just as they called for the First Minister's resignation before she even gave evidence to the parliamentary committee, the Tories have shown that they have no interest in establishing the truth.

“This entire saga should have been about examining a process that let down women and ensuring that was never repeated.

"In their ridiculous attempts to pursue a political scalp the Tories have completely ignored that fact. Ruth Davidson and Douglas Ross have shown that they have absolutely nothing positive to offer the people of Scotland.

"Worse still, members of the parliamentary committee have shown utter contempt for the women involved, and for the rules of the Scottish Parliament, by leaking confidential evidence and their own conclusions.

"If anyone's resignation is still needed, it is these MSPs who should step down now, and who should not be candidates for re-election in May.”