I HAVE many reasons to be grateful to the Irish.

When I was trying to set up the first Celtic Film Festival in South Uist in 1980 (the 41st of which will take place next June in Quimper) I was lucky to meet many inspirational Irish broadcasters and artists. They all taught me something, and I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the then Controller of RTE 1, Muiris Mac Conghail, who became a close friend and mentor.

As SNP chief executive I developed links with Irish political parties building particularly on the strong friendships built by Winnie Ewing in her many years in the European Parliament.

In my various ministerial roles since 2007 I have enjoyed positive dialogue with my Irish counterparts – north and south of the Border – often assisted by the thematic work of the British-Irish Council which I continue to attend in support of the First Minister. Moreover, one of the highlights of my constituency duties in Argyll and Bute was welcoming the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, to Iona in 2013 for the 1450th anniversary celebrations.

It was, therefore, a particular pleasure for me, last night in Edinburgh Castle, to publicly acknowledge those debts and add a new one.

For while thanking the 120 members of Scotland’s new Citizens' Assembly for agreeing to be the harbingers of a new deepening of Scottish democracy, I had to tell them that the influence and generosity of Ireland has been instrumental in getting this new democratic development under way.

Ireland’s Constitutional Convention, followed by its Citizens' Assembly, were and are innovative and influential developments for the country itself, but have also contributed greatly to international knowledge of how direct democracy can work. The success of the Abortion Referendum demonstrated that careful, thoughtful, open and inclusive discussion can led to profound change even in the most difficult of areas, especially when politicians encourage people to come to their own conclusions.

The detailed work that was undertaken to organise, support and bring to fruition the Irish process (which is about to start looking at other topics) was truly groundbreaking and it has been an enormous advantage for Scotland to have been given open access to the key individuals involved who have shown a generous interest in what we are trying to do. I am certain it could not have been done here without such help from there.

One of the strongest lessons from Ireland, which we have rigorously adhered to, is that the independence of the process is a crucial part of its success. Eventually even formal political submissions in evidence were kept to an agreed length and rigorously fact checked.

It took a little bit of time for an Irish political consensus to form around such radical notions but there is now solid cross-party support.

Last night in Edinburgh there were also political guests from all Scottish parties and whilst the Tories have in recent days been sniping about cost (which will be very similar to that in Ireland) they did at least abstain in the Scottish Parliament vote on the matter last month, unlike the LibDems, whose hostility has been as hypocritical as it has been hysterical. Labour and the Greens have been open minded and supportive, which is to their credit.

How it goes about its business, and what conclusions it reaches, is absolutely up to the Assembly itself. It is in charge of its own deliberations and destiny. Its impressive chairs and its able secretariat, along with their chosen advisers, will support the scientifically and independently selected cross section of our population as they look at the issues that confront our nation’s future and make recommendations for the Parliament and Government to consider and act upon.

They will do so without fear or favour, I am certain.

The awful chaos of Brexit which deepens as week succeeds week is an object lesson in how not to undertake constitutional change and an awful exemplar of how politics is being debased and damaged by the out-of-date and out-of-touch Westminster system.

Scotland showed it could be different when its new parliament was vested in 1999. That parliament is now widely seen to be the best place for decisions about Scotland to be made.

But nothing stands still. Democracy must keep moving forward in order to deepen its roots and take nourishment from them.

Ireland recognised that, and acted. Scotland is grateful for the chance, once again, to learn from our Celtic cousins.