THE SNP couldn’t have made a bigger mess of the planned Citizens Assembly if it tried.

The mishandling is utterly unfathomable. The party embraced the idea of a non-partisan assembly of ordinary Scottish citizens gathering information on the biggest issues facing the nation – information that would then be used to guide both parliament and the people on the best way forward.

The idea was a simple, elegant addition to our democracy – but the SNP has now stomped all over it, politicised it, and, made it look falsely like a propaganda unit. The party’s behaviour is completely counter-productive, and detrimental to both democracy and the interests of Scotland.

Since Ireland used assemblies to navigate the abortion debate, I’ve advocated for the same set-up in Scotland, looking at everything from the case for and against independence, to climate change, Brexit, immigration, and the NHS; all the big difficult subjects facing voters.

The key to success is keeping an assembly completely non-partisan. It should act like a courtroom, not a parliament. It seeks evidence, it speaks to witnesses, it weighs its findings and it reports to the public and parliament to help voters make informed choices in the best interests of themselves and the country.

As a Yes voter, I’ve always felt it vital that any assembly test the case for independence as thoroughly and objectively as possible. Currency, borders, the relationship with the UK after independence – these are hard questions which an assembly could help answer. If the answers were uncomfortable for the Yes movement, then so be it. That’s democracy. Those are the facts. I want to vote with accurate information in my head, not on mistruths in my gut.

In our anti-fact era, many felt Citizens Assemblies (CAs) would be a step towards more truth in politics. However, the SNP has shot those hopes to pieces. The project is badly wounded.

Discussion around CAs began in earnest after the Irish abortion referendum in May 2018. Then early this year Extinction Rebellion brought the subject to more attention by calling on the Scottish Government to set up an assembly on climate change.

In January, I wrote a column for this paper suggesting an array of Citizens Assemblies in Scotland tackling the most intractable issues. My hope was that in a time when compromise seems dead, assemblies would help bring people together in a search for facts. Citizens Assemblies could open closed minds, I hoped.

READ MORE: Knives out for Boris Johnson as ambassador resigns 

In late February, SNP MP Joanna Cherry wrote in favour of CAs. She said that “Citizens Assemblies could be used to great effect as Scotland moves towards its second independence referendum”, and that “Citizens Assemblies would have a transformative potential in the independence debate”.

As a supporter of independence, but also someone who wants to see CAs created and operating in a non-partisan way, the comments made me a little uncomfortable. I worried it might seem as if CAs were going to be used to push the case for independence rather than explore it even-handedly.

In April, delegates at the SNP conference backed plans for an assembly. Ms Cherry said at the time: “I think a Citizens Assembly can look at some of the big policy issues that need to be tackled to get us there [to independence].” She added that CAs were a “concrete way to achieve our goal which is to create a consensus around Scotland and a bigger majority for Yes”.

The First Minister unveiled plans for an assembly while revealing her intention to pursue a second independence referendum before 2021.

My heart sank. The optics looked like CAs were tied to an SNP agenda. The timing and language seemed partisan. If I were a Unionist, I thought, I might feel two things: firstly, that CAs were going to be used to push independence rather than debate substantive issues; and secondly, I could use the poor presentation for some good old-fashioned party political disruption.

Cue claims by Tories and others that CAs were a “nationalist stunt” designed to advance independence, and calls for a boycott. The anti-independence Scotland in Union organisation jumped on to the bandwagon, writing to its 26,000 supporters, saying people should not take part unless the SNP could prove it was acting “in good faith”.

READ MORE: UK Brexit officials admit breaching data rules after SNP row 

It was infuriating. The assembly will be independent of government. It will be open, balanced, transparent, and inclusive – but the clumsy way it was being presented was allowing wreckers to wreck.

The co-convener of the assembly, former Labour MEP David Martin, appealed for co-operation and insisted the assembly would be independent from the SNP. Joanna Cherry then appeared in an online video claiming that a Citizens’ Assembly was “the perfect way … to move us towards independence”.

Dr Oliver Escobar, the Scottish Government’s adviser on CAs, said he was “fuming” at the comments, and suggested Ms Cherry’s claims made the assembly’s work “10 times harder”. He said an open-minded and unbiased approach was the “fundamental underpinning of the legitimacy of this body”.

Dr Escobar added that “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”. He also said “the problem is that there is a public perception that this is just an SNP thing”.

Professor David Farrell of University College Dublin, research director on the first Irish assembly, said perceived bias was a “serious risk” to the new assembly. Ms Cherry took to Twitter to stand by her comments. She said any threat to the assembly came from those threatening a boycott.

The result of all this is that Mr Martin – aware that “suspicion” hangs over the assembly – is now trying to reassure Unionists that it’s not an SNP stitch-up. He said it was a mistake for Nicola Sturgeon to announce the assembly at the same time as she restarted the second referendum debate.

You have to feel for Mr Martin. He made a sterling defence, laying out exactly what assemblies are for – “trying to involve and inform citizens in as active and proactive a way as possible so that … we’re all better informed”.

The problem is that no matter how hard he tries, the damage is done and the much-needed assembly is tarnished in some eyes as another wing of the SNP.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year.