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Petitioners furious at being depicted as SNP front

Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael checking ballots at the May election count. Photo: Shetnews

THE LIBERAL Democrat activist who started a fundraising page aimed at covering the legal costs of embattled Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has insisted there is nothing inaccurate in her description of the court action against him as an “SNP witch hunt”.

Stalwart Lib Dem member Sheila Ritchie, an Aberdeen-based lawyer who has known Carmichael since he was a teenager, set up the page last week.

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The page continues to describe the petition as “nothing more than a ruthless attempt to eliminate any remaining opposition to the SNP in Scotland”.

One of the four petitioners, Tim Morrison, said he was furious at how she had characterised their challenge to Carmichael’s re-election as Orkney and Shetland MP in May.

Morrison himself is an SNP member, but not an office holder, while the other three petitioners are Labour and Scottish Greens voters.

He wrote to both Ritchie and the chief executive of gofundme, the website hosting the fundraiser for Carmichael, demanding that the page be amended “to make it clear that the SNP is not involved in our activities in any formal or informal way”.

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“They [the SNP] are no more responsible for my actions than the Liberal Democrats are yours,” he wrote to Ritchie. “My co-petitioners, who are not SNP supporters, feel that your description of them is potentially defamatory.

“We are not trying to remove or eliminate political opposition but hoping to create a polity with higher standards of public life. I look forward to an apology from you and swift changes to your published material.”

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He added: “I am very glad to see a crowd funding site like this set up to support Mr Carmichael.

“It is iniquitous that our current electoral law makes it so hard to challenge MPs and for them to be able to defend themselves appropriately.”

Morrison said Ritchie had not responded to his message urging her to correct the description. An initial reference to an “SNP witch hunt” has been removed from the gofundme page.

In his letter to gofundme’s chief executive, Morrison stated: “Carmichael has every right to raise money in this way to fund his defence, however the description of us is no more than a malicious smear.”

Ritchie told Shetland News she didn’t feel the wording of her fundraiser was inaccurate.

“You just have to look at the crowdfunder itself for my Twitter page to see where this has come from. The Scottish National Party as such may not have put an official imprimatur on it, but it could stop it any time it liked.”

Ritchie said that, while she was thick-skinned enough to take it, she did not feel she deserved some of the abuse directed at her on the fundraising page or on Twitter in recent days.

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Shortly after the election Carmichael admitted that he had lied in April about his involvement in the leaking of a memo that wrongly suggested Scotland’s First Minister had told the French ambassador she wanted David Cameron to win the election.

Last week the Election Court held a two-day televised hearing into the legitimacy of Carmichael’s General Election victory over the SNP’s Danus Skene, on a much-reduced majority of 817 votes.

The four petitioners have raised around £89,000 in a crowdfunding effort to cover the legal costs of their challenge.

Last week Ritchie launched an effort to help cover Carmichael’s own legal costs. Having set an initial target of £50,000 she now understands that the sum required may be as high as £80,000.

Contrary to a report elsewhere in the Scottish media, she said the fundraising page had gone offline for a time over the weekend because gofundme has an automatic “trigger” when certain financial figures are reached – not because of complaints about the wording.

“They need evidence of who you are [when a certain amount is raised],” she explained. “Unfortunately I was away at the weekend and was only able to send the stuff through yesterday [Monday].”

More than £7,000 has been raised from 167 people over the past week. Some of the names pledging funds are Lib Dem party grandees including former Northern Isles MP Jim Wallace, Chris Rennard and Malcolm Bruce.

Ritchie said there had also been contributions from “a fair amount of people from Orkney and Shetland”.

She acknowledged that Carmichael had made a mistake, but said he deserved to remain as an MP.

“I have no doubt that he said something he absolutely shouldn’t have. He has admitted that himself, he has apologised, but it is not something that should have been the subject of an election petition.”

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