Nicola Sturgeon has said SNP politicians who are opposed to her government's gender recognition reform plans should not have to quit the party and should be able to stand for election.

Her comments are perhaps a bid to quell a bitter internal row and came less than 24 hours after Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said opponents should question whether they should seek election under the party banner and if they are “comfortable” staying in a party where they “pick and choose” which policies to support. 

Ms Somerville's remarks followed ones by the SNP MP Alyn Smith last week when he said critics opposed to the reforms should resign from the party and stand as independents. However, in an interview at the weekend Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader in the Commons said the views of critics inside the party should be 'respected like any other conscience issue’.

At a press conference in St Andrew's House, Edinburgh today the First Minister was asked whether if politicians should stand down from the SNP if they disagreed with the Scottish Government's stance, she said: "No I don't."

Ms Sturgeon said that for every party in the democratic world, there is a general expectation that politicians will stand on its platform.

She continued: "Equally - in probably every party that is a democracy in every democracy in the world - there are individuals who can't accept the position on particular issues and vote accordingly.

"That is internal party democracy. It may be rare in the SNP, it is rare in the SNP but nevertheless I think we should see it in that way."

The First Minister was also asked if she would welcome a decision by Joanna Cherry, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West who is a prominent critic of the gender recognition reforms, to stand again.

The First Minister said: "I don't think anyone should be prevented from standing because they disagree with party policy on one particular issue and I'm not talking about this issue in specific terms but generally.

READ MORE: Stephen Flynn: Views of SNP gender reform critics should be respected

"All political parties have an expectation...I don't think there is anybody in elected office - and I would include myself in this - would say we agree with 100 per cent of the policy positions of our party.

"But there is a general expectation when you stand under your party's banner you accept the platform you are standing on. But equally there is the understanding and recognition and acceptance that there will be issues on which some people take a different view and vote on accordingly.

"And I think parties always have been and always should be willing to deal with that."

The First Minister also said she stood by the Gender Recognition Reform Bill which was passed in Holyrood in December and has since been blocked by the UK Government.

During an interview on the BBC’s Sunday Show, Ms Somerville was asked if SNP politicians who did not agree with the government’s policy should resign.

She said: "We all stood on a manifesto that was obligated to look at improving the trans community’s life chances and life circumstances, particularly around gender recognition. I think if we stand on a manifesto for that, there’s an expectation, as in any representative of any political party, that you follow that manifesto.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon publishes tax returns ahead of press conference

The intervention today by Ms Sturgeon whose group of MSPs were not allowed a free vote or to vote according to their conscience during the parliamentary stages of the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) Bill, now blocked by the UK Government appears to signal a chance of tone towards opponents of the reforms.

In a recent interview the First Minister has said some opponents - though she did not name anyone - “used women’s rights” to cloak their bigotry and has previously described critics' concerns as 'not valid'.

On whether she thought politicians should stand down from the SNP if they disagreed with the legislation, Ms Sturgeon added: “No, I don’t. Like any party, probably anywhere in the democratic world, there is a general expectation that no matter our persona views, we broadly accept the platform on which we stand, if we stand for a party.

"But equally in probably every party, there is a democracy, and in ever democracy in the world there are individuals who can’t accept the position on particular issues and vote accordingly. That is internal party democracy and I think it may be rare in the SNP – it is rare in the SNP – but nevertheless I think we should see it in that way.”

The legislation aimed to make it easier for transgender Scots to obtain a gender recognition certificate, and would also have lowered the minimum age for applicants from 18 to 16. It has since been blocked by the UK Government using a section 35 order.

READ MORE: Sturgeon 'can't recall' when she knew husband loaned SNP £107,000

Debate has been further fuelled in recent weeks by the case of Isla Bryson, who was convicted of two rapes while known as a man called Adam Graham. Bryson, 31, was initially held in a women’s prison, but was later moved to the male estate following a huge backlash.

Asked whether the Bill was now “dead in the water” on the back of the trans prisoner debate and the UK Government’s intervention, Ms Sturgeon said: “Parliament as a whole by a two-thirds majority, with MSPs of all parties in that two-thirds majority, passed that Bill before Christmas … in doing so it followed on from many other countries who have legislation of that nature already in place.

"In fact, since we did that at least one other country that I’m aware of – Finland last week – has also passed similar legislation. And obviously we have the section 35 order to work our way through.

"Much of the coverage in the last couple of weeks has understandably focused on an individual case, and a very serious individual case of someone convicted of rape. I think when cases like that arise, it is important that they are dealt with seriously and appropriately, as has been the situation in this case.

But there’s no other group in society where the actions of an individual or a small minority would be used to take away or undermine the rights of the whole group in society, and I don’t think that should be the case for the trans community.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “For me it’s not about ideology, it’s about the rights of a minority in our society who already struggle with stigma and discrimination.”