NICOLA Sturgeon will not introduce an independence referendum bill into Holyrood ahead of next month’s council elections, The Herald can reveal.

The First Minister plans to hold Indyref2 next year but with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson refusing to agree to a transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament she intends to use devolved legislation to enable the vote to take place.

However, the UK Government is likely to launch a challenge in the Supreme Court over the Holyrood bill raising the prospect of a protracted legal battle.

The First Minister said in January that a timetable for a second independence referendum would be set out in the "coming weeks" with a plan for the vote to be held before the end of 2023 on the condition that the pandemic had passed.

Her comments led some SNP members to believe the legislation would be tabled in Holyrood before the local government poll in a move which would boost activists' enthusiasm for the council campaign.

Earlier this month Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Greens' co leader, said the bill would be introduced "before too long".

READ MORE: Plans to hold independence vote to be unveiled imminently, says Patrick Harvie

He would not say whether it would be before or after the two week Easter recess, which began yesterday.

But now The Herald has learnt that the legislation will not be formally tabled in Holyrood before the May 5 council elections, though the ballot was not given as the reason for the legislation not being brought in until later.

"The bill is not going to happen before May 5, and it's not related to the elections," said an SNP source.

It is not clear though why the Referendum Bill has yet to be introduced given the First Minister's comments in January.

There has been some suggestion that Ms Sturgeon may want to wait until closer to the SNP conference which could take place in late spring or early summer, alternatively there could be concerns the bill might act to galvanise Tory voters at a time when the Conservatives have seen their support fall in the wake of the PM's partygate saga.

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Meanwhile, Dr Nick McKerrell, of Glasgow Caledonian University, said the Scottish Government's guidance around the pre-election period - known as purdah - in his assessment suggested the bill wouldn't be introduced before May 5.

While constitutional politics are not usually regarded as the issues at stake in local government elections, independence does feature in the SNP's council campaign material.

A party leaflet received by voters in Glasgow last week said: "With independence from scandal ridden Westminster, our 'international city' will be the beating heart of an outward looking Scotland.

"When the Independence Referendum is won it is vital that an SNP City Government leads Scotland's largest city."

Mr McKerrell said: "The reading of the purdah guidance suggests to me the Scottish Government do not want to do anything too controversial during this time, given the bill could be challenged in [the Supreme Court] and we don't know what the Lord Advocate position is on the bill, so it strikes me as a controversial issue."

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Professor Alan Page, emeritus professor of public law at Dundee University, did not think the pre election guidance issued prevented the bill from being introduced before May 5 because the guidance was couched it terms of activities with a potential impact on specific local issues.

However, he added: "It would open the Scottish Government to the charge that it was seeking to bolster support for the SNP/Greens in advance of the local elections. For that reason among others it might prefer therefore to hold over the introduction of a bill until after the local elections."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The local government election period has no bearing on the introduction of the Bill. As outlined in the Programme for Government, the Scottish Government will work to ensure that a legitimate and constitutional referendum can be held within this Parliament, and if the Covid crisis is over, within the first half of this Parliament."

Scottish Conservative Shadow Constitution Secretary Donald Cameron MSP, said: “The SNP-Green coalition may be holding off introducing their indyref2 bill for now, but the public won’t be fooled. They know the nationalists' obsession with independence overrides everything else.

“We know that the SNP will take every vote at the upcoming local elections to endorse their plans to break up the United Kingdom.

“A divisive referendum is the last thing Scotland needs right now. Only the Scottish Conservatives are capable of beating the SNP and delivering on people’s local priorities.”

Scottish Labour Constitution spokesperson Sarah Boyack said: “The SNP are failing to deliver the public services people rely on and they’ve left our local councils starved of investment. Instead they are focusing again on their divisive referendum.

“They are wasting vital time, energy and resources on their referendum bill.

“Surely now is the time to come together to focus on tackling the cost of living crisis and rebuilding from the pandemic."

Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "Nicola Sturgeon is torn between appeasing her most fanatical supporters and the knowledge that introducing a bill for another divisive independence bill now would just look absurdly out of touch.

"With record Covid cases, a war in Europe and the biggest cost of living crisis in generations, Scottish Liberal Democrats are clear that the government should be focused on tackling these urgent issues.

"Nicola Sturgeon is like a record stuck on repeat. Her party want the sum total of public debate to be taken up with independence once again. It's time for a change."

Chris McEleny, Alba Party general secretary, said: “ There were already several cast iron mandates for the people of Scotland to determine their own future before last year’s Scottish Parliament election and now it’s been a year of abject failure in pursing the mandate pro independence parties received at that election.

"In January we were told the legislation to enable a referendum in 2023 would be tabled in “ a matter of weeks “. Now the Scottish Parliament are off on holiday so it is apparent there will be no effort whatsoever to bring forward the referendum bill that the independence movement were promised in advance of the council elections."