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Sun 26 May 2019
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Byline Times’ court reporter James Doleman returns with the curious case of Natalie McGarry.

I’ve covered trials of MPs, newspaper editors and government advisors, but these have always been in the rarefied setting of the Old Bailey or the High Court – elegant buildings full of decoration and history.

Glasgow Sheriff Court is very different. A huge concrete monstrosity on the banks of the Clyde, reputedly the largest court in Europe.

The Sheriff Court is the kind of place you end up in if you get drunk on the street, get caught speeding, or start a fight on a Friday night.

So, it was strange to see a former MP, the former “rising star of Scottish politics”, sitting in the dock in a near-empty courtroom, pleading guilty to the tawdry crime of stealing donation money, in one case, from a food bank.

As she confirmed her guilt, an awful wailing echoed through the room, coming from the cells below. It was unconnected with what was happening, but added to the surreal atmosphere of the day.

In an almost inaudible voice, McGarry pled guilty to two charges of embezzlement.

If you don’t follow Scottish politics, you won’t know who Natalie McGarry is.

A law graduate, she became one of the faces of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014. She helped set up Women for Independence, one of the most high-profile ‘Yes’ supporting groups of the campaign. She then stood for the SNP in the 2015 General Election and won the safe Labour seat of Glasgow East. She was articulate, witty and in constant media demand but, behind it all, there was a dark secret: she was lining her pockets from the often small donations made by Independence supporters.

I remember when I first heard about the accusations and, like many, dismissed them. Then I spoke to a friend of hers who told me about the scale of the allegations, a total of over £40,000.

“She liked the lifestyle,” he told me despairingly.

Ms McGarry defended herself vigorously, sacking her first lawyer, and a second. Then, just before she was due to come to trial, she dismissed her counsel and demanded another delay.

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The presiding judge, Sheriff Crozier, was having none of it.

“Let me assure you this trial will start this week, this court will not be held to blackmail,” he said.

The next day, as the jury was about to be sworn-in, McGarry’s solicitor rose to say that he too had been dismissed and his client was going to represent herself.

Then, in an almost inaudible voice, McGarry pled guilty to two charges of embezzlement, the Crown agreeing to accept Not Guilty pleas to two others. Asked if, now she was defending herself, she wanted a pen and paper to take notes, she said no, but clutched her phone in the dock during the whole hearing.

Then SNP leader Alex Salmond and Natalie McGarry in Inverkeithing

The Sheriff told the accused that he would begin the sentencing process next week, and urged McGarry to get proper legal representation in the meantime. She didn’t speak, just nodded and left the court. She walked out alone, past the camera crews and shouting reporters, her career in tatters.

We’ll find out more of the details of McGarry’s conduct next week when the Crown presents the narrative of her actions and the defence its mitigation. Legal observers say a custodial sentence is not out of the question.

The word betrayal is not a pretty one, but it’s hard to find another that fits.

Millions of people supported Independence, and tens of thousands donated money to try and make it happen. However, watching Natalie McGarry leave court today, nobody I saw expressed any righteous anger, just sadness at a life gone so terribly wrong.

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