NICOLA Sturgeon has acknowledged she may not be able to deliver a lawful second independence referendum on her preferred timescale.

The First Minister said it was her “intention” to hold Indyref2 next year, but it depended on overcoming “legal challenges” related to the strict limits on Holyrood’s powers.

She said: “There are legal challenges to work through if we are to have what I think is essential to deliver dependence - a lawful process.”

She said she would give the Scottish Parliament a “significant update” later this month, but conspicuously failed to say that she would introduce an Indyref2 Bill by summer recess. 

If no Bill is introduced by then, it could not be published before September.

The First Minister has said that she wants to hold Indyref2 by the end of 2023, Covid permitting, but Boris Johnson has refused to give Holyrood the necessary powers.

Ahead of the 2014 independence vote, then Tory PM David Cameron arranged a time-limited transfer of referendum powers under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998.

Ms Sturgeon asked for another Section 30 in December 2019, but a month later Mr Johnson refused, saying the 2014 vote had been a “once in a generation” event.

“I cannot agree to any request for a transfer of power that would lead to further independence referendums,” he said.

In the absence of a Section 30 order, it is unclear whether Holyrood could hold a legal Indyref2 using its own limited powers, as the Union is an issue reserved to Westminster.

The Scottish Government’s law officers would have to approve the legislation as competent, and if passed it would almost certainly be challenged bythe UK Government at the UK Supreme Court and possibly struck down.

However, asked last week at Holyrood if he thought a referendum would happen by the end of 2023, Constitution Secretary Angus Robertson said: “Yes.”

Asked on Tuesday if she believed Indyref2 would happen by the end of 2023, Ms Sturgeon also told the BBC: “Yes.”

But asked today how she could be categorical about the timing when she could not be categorical about the law, the First Minister changed tack.

She said: “Look, my intention is that it will be before the end of next year. I think there is the ability to do that, and I will set out the path that I think achieves that very soon.”

Asked if that meant a referendum next year was contingent on the UK Supreme Court approving her legislation for it, Ms Sturgeon refused to say.

Asked if 2023 was an intention rather than a guarantee, she again refused to say. 

Speaking at Bute House as she launched the first part of a renewed prospectus for leaving the Union, Ms Sturgeon said any referendum had to be a “lawful process”.

She said: “I was reelected as First Minister just over one year ago on a clear commitment to give the people of Scotland the choice of becoming an independent country, and the people ofScotland elected a Scottish parliament with a decisive majority in favour of both independence and the right to choose. 

“The Scottish Parliament therefore has an indisputable democratic mandate, and we intend to honour that. 

“A referendum, though, if it has to be deliverable, command confidence and achieve its objective, must be lawful. It is the parties opposed to independence and only them who would benefit from doubt about the process. 

“These parties don't want to engage on the substance of this debate because they know how increasingly threadbare their arguments are. 

“Their only hope is to cast doubt on the process.

“ Those of us who relish the opportunity to make and win the substantive case for independence mustn't allow them to do so. 

“Of course, if this UK Government has any respect at all, for democracy, the issue of legality will be put beyond doubt, as in 2014, through a Section 30 order. 

“I make clear to the Prime Minister again today that I stand ready to discuss the terms of such an order at a time. 

“But my duty as a democratically elected First Minister, is to the people of Scotland. 

“It is not to Boris Johnson, or to any Tory Prime Minister. 

“This is a UK Government that has no respect for democracy. And as we saw again yesterday, it has no regard for the rule of law either. 

“That means if we are to uphold democracy here in Scotland, we must forge a way forward, if necessary, without a Section 30 order. 

“For the reasons I've set out already, however, we must do so in a lawful manner. 

“We know that in these circumstances, the competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate is contested. And that therefore is the situation we must navigate to give people a choice of independence. 

“Now that work is well underway. And while I do not intend to go further into the details, I can say that I do plan to give a significant update to Parliament very soon indeed.”

Asked if it was unfair on Yes supporters not to tell them how she planned to deliver independence, she said: “What would be unfair the country would be for me to stand here and pretend that there’s not challenges to navigate through. 

“I want and I intend to give people the choice. 

“That mandate was given to me not as an individual but to the Scottish Parliament last year. 

“I intend to honour that. That is what democracy demands. 

“But there are legal challenges to work through if we are to have what I think is essential to deliver dependence - a lawful process.

“And I would be less fair to people if I didn't say that I'm taking all of that seriously and behaving responsibly and I will set out that path very soon.” 

 Alba deputy leader Kenny MAcAskill said: “It is the duty of the Scottish Government to implement its mandate, renewed in 2021, for a second independence referendum. 

“In doing so it will have the  support of the whole Yes movement.   

“It is now for the Scottish Government to set out both the timetable and the means by which it will deliver  an independence referendum by the end of 2023 with or without a Section 30 Order being granted by Westminster. 

“A Scottish Constitutional Convention comprised of MSPs, MPs, council leaders and civic Scotland could play a vital role in asserting the democratic right of the people of Scotland to decide their own future.  

“This is particularly the case if Boris Johnson and his cohorts continue to reject Scotland’s democratic rights and can become both the basis and legitimacy for future action.

“The 2014 case for the Union no longer stands. It is right that people in Scotland be asked once again whether they want Independence because the strong UK economy within Europe which we were promised does not exist.

“Independence is the only way we can fully recover from Covid, use our massive energy  resources for the benefit of our people, address the inequalities of wealth in Scotland, and rejoin the European family of nations.

“Independence is the best future for Scotland and we need to get on and deliver it as a matter of urgency.”