Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ave atque vale: Michael Matheson and Kenny MacAskill

[Here are a few press reactions to the departure of Kenny MacAskill as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the arrival of Michael Matheson:]

The Herald: One of the big surprises of Nicola Sturgeon's new Cabinet was the appointment of Falkirk MSP Michael Matheson to the justice portfolio.

While the departure of Kenny MacAskill from Government had been widely expected, few had predicted his successor would be the previous Minister for Public Health.

Mr Matheson, a former occupational therapist, has little background in law, although he did serve as shadow deputy minister for justice from 1999 until 2004 and had a stint on the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee over roughly the same period.

The keen mountaineer, who served as a regional MSP for Central Scotland between 1999 and 2007 before winning his constituency seat, is said to have impressed behind the scenes with his performance as a minister and a demeanour described as "calm and unflappable".

His appointment marks a departure from the approach of Mr MacAskill, a lawyer by trade but whose policies did not always find favour among the legal profession.

In an eventful seven years as Justice Secretary, Mr MacAskill came under scrutiny for the freeing of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, on compassionate grounds and the creation of the single police force.

More recent controversies included his plan to scrap the centuries-old need for corroboration in criminal cases and the use of armed police officers on routine duties.

The proposal to end the need for corroboration was put on hold in April following an outcry from lawyers while the policy of allowing armed police to respond to routine calls was reversed last month, prompting new calls for Mr MacAskill to resign.

The Scotsman: When asked about the departures of [former Cabinet Secretary for Education] Mr [Mike] Russell and Mr MacAskill, she [First Minister Nicola Sturgeon] said: “Both of them felt they’d made a big contribution, that the time was right for them to demit ministerial office.”

From his decision to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to the routine appearance of armed police on the streets, Mr MacAskill’s reign at the justice department had been mired in controversy.

When pressed on whether his departure was an acknowledgement that the government had got things wrong on justice, Ms Sturgeon said: “I pay tribute to Kenny MacAskill. Kenny MacAskill is the justice secretary who has ensured that there are 1,000 more police officers on the streets of our country and has presided over a fall in crime that has led to the position where crime is now at a 40-year low.

“He has significant achievements to his name and he should be very proud of that.”

The Times (Magnus Linklater): Two signals have been sent out. The first is overt: Ms Sturgeon had made it clear that she wants to see more women in positions of power. She now has a cabinet that has a 50 per cent female to male ratio.

The second is more subtle, but no less important. This, she is saying, is a post-Salmond cabinet. Not only have two of his senior ministerial colleagues — Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, and Mike Russell at education — gone altogether, but she has promoted Roseanna Cunningham on to the front bench; history will recall that Ms Cunningham is far from being Alex Salmond’s favourite SNP colleague; in 2004, he came back from Westminster to ensure that she was denied the leadership.

The aim is to have a working cabinet rather than an exercise in propaganda. It echoes the message Ms Sturgeon gave out during her first Holyrood appearance as first minister, when, quite deliberately, she held back from the Salmond ritual of denigrating opponents and castigating Westminster. If that is the pattern to come, it is a welcome one. The demise of Kenny MacAskill as justice secretary was almost inevitable. He had lost the confidence of the legal establishment because of his unyielding stance on corroboration, and a series of decisions that had raised questions about his judgment. Michael Matheson, who replaces him, was, for five years, shadow deputy justice minister, so will know that he has a lot of ground to make up to win back the authority of the office.

The Guardian: Another newcomer is Michael Matheson, who replaces the benighted Kenny McAskill as justice secretary. McAskill had weathered a controversial tenure which saw him draw criticism for his handling of the Megrahi case, the creation of the single Scottish police force, and his attempts to reform the laws on corroboration.

The departure of McAskill, as well as Mike Russell from education, signals a generational shift away from the “79 group”, an SNP faction from the 1980s which included previous first minister Alex Salmond.

The Daily Telegraph: Kenny MacAskill, the man who freed the Lockerbie bomber, was the most high profile casualty as Nicola Sturgeon announced her new ministerial team. (...)

Following a string of controversies, Mr MacAskill had been hotly tipped to lose his job.

He will be remembered as the man who caused an international outcry in 2009 by freeing Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the only person convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.

The Libyan intelligence agent was released on compassionate grounds on the basis that he had terminal cancer and only three months to live. He was given a hero’s welcome in Tripoli and lived there with his family for two years and nine months before dying of prostate cancer.

His release was criticised by Barack Obama and infuriated American relatives who lost loved ones in the atrocity. The decision meant he spent less than eight years in jail for the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil in which 270 people died.

Mr MacAskill also infuriated the legal profession last year when he announced plans to scrap the historic principle of corroboration that requires evidence from two sources in criminal cases.

In recent months, he has been widely criticised following the arming of police officers on routine patrols following the creation of the single national police force. A public outcry resulted in an about-turn on the policy by Police Scotland.

He also oversaw the merging of the country’s eight regional forces into Police Scotland, amid fears over centralisation and a loss of local accountability.

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