Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray has refused to withdraw remarks he made linking the independence of Montenegro to ethnic cleansing and violence.
The MSP for East Lothian insisted he stood by his remarks claiming that he had made a “very valid point” and suggested that those who took offence didn’t understand the point he was making.
Mr Gray was appearing on Newsnight Scotland as part of a series of interviews featuring leaders of Holyrood’s main political parties when he was asked if he regretted “deeply offending a number of countries – most recently including Montenegro” when he linked the country to ethnic cleansing, a war crimes tribunal and a peace keeping mission.
The Scottish Labour leader not only defended his earlier comments but repeated his claims that Montenegrin independence was indeed linked to appalling acts of violence.
Mr Gray said: “The point I made was this, that Montenegrin independence happened in the context of two world wars and the Balkan conflict which included all of those violent and tumultuous aspects, and I think that’s true.”
It was during the last First Minister’s Questions of 2010 that Iain Gray made his original remarks, as he sought to equate the desire for Scottish independence with failure, violence and intolerance. The Scottish Labour leader had already insulted Iceland, Ireland and Norway before turning his attention to Montenegro.
To raucous laughter from the Labour benches Mr Gray claimed that Montenegro had needed “two world wars, the Balkan conflict, ethnic cleansing, a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission” in order to achieve independence.
Montenegrins reacted with fury at the slurs and Marijana Zivkovic, chargé d’affaires at Montenegro’s British embassy, wrote to Mr Gray and boss Ed Miliband expressing her “deep regret” at the Scottish Labour leader’s comments. Ms Zivkovic pointed out that their nation was the only former Yugoslav republic to stay out of the Balkan conflict and actually provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the bloodshed.
She said: “Your statement that Montenegro was involved in ‘ethnic cleansing’, including references to ‘a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission’, is simply incorrect.”
The diplomatic row made front page headlines and was carried by newspapers in Scotland and England.
However, in a move that provoked further controversy, BBC Scotland failed to report the story. The ‘news blackout’ led to accusations that the state broadcaster was failing in its public duty to scrutinise fairly and there were allegations that the story had been suppressed in order to minimise damage to Labour in Scotland.
The anger intensified when online comments critical of the BBC’s stance were removed en masse from the blog of BBC Scotland’s political editor Brian Taylor.
To date, no BBC Scotland news bulletin has mentioned the diplomatic row and BBC Scotland’s only acknowledgment of the issue has been Tuesday night’s question from Isabel Fraser.
Iain Gray’s refusal to withdraw his original remarks coupled with his decision to repeat the claims are unlikely to defuse the situation. It remains to be seen what, if any, reaction is forthcoming from the Montenegrin Embassy and whether BBC Scotland will cover any developments that may materialise.
To watch Iain Gray’s full interview click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–mcpbT0h0o