NICOLA Sturgeon has ruled out holding a referendum on independence this year, but said a second ballot remains “on the table”.

The First Minister’s remarks came a day after she said she was “not bluffing” on holding a new vote on the nation’s sovereignty if the UK Government pursues a “hard Brexit”.

European Union membership was a key issue in the 2014 independence campaign, with the Unionist side claiming only a No vote would protect Scotland’s status inside the bloc.

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“There is not going to be an independence referendum in 2017, I don’t think there is anybody who thinks that is the case,” Sturgeon said in a STV interview yesterday.

“But an independence referendum has to be on the table to make sure Scotland doesn’t end up being driven off a hard Brexit cliff edge.”

Responding, Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, welcomed the First Minister’s insistence that a referendum remains “on the table” as a way of avoiding the damage caused by a “hard Brexit”.

And he called on campaigners to use the months ahead to build support for a new and stronger Yes case and win over support from No voters.

“Given the Tory Government’s reckless attitude to the single market, risking Scottish jobs, wages and public services, it is essential that we find a way to respect Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU,” he said.

“The First Minister may have said that there won’t be a referendum on independence this year but legislation must be progressed to give Holyrood the option, and it’s welcome that the Scottish Government remains committed to keeping it on the table. This cannot be a quiet time ahead for supporters of independence.

Although the Brexit negotiations will take two years, work must begin.”

Harvie added: “Greens are committed to developing plans for an independent currency with a Scottish central bank, and our Jobs in the New Economy report outlines how an independent economy could reduce inequality and provide lasting employment and social protections.”

The Scottish Government has drafted legislation for a new referendum, which Sturgeon says will be used if it concludes independence is the only or best way to protect Scotland’s place in Europe.

She has also published a paper on options aimed at keeping Scotland in the single market and is awaiting a response from Theresa May. Sturgeon has urged the UK Government to opt for a so-called soft Brexit and retain its membership of the trade bloc.

Failing that, she wants a special arrangement to allow Scotland to stay in the single market even if the rest of the UK leaves.

On Friday, the First Minister indicated a soft Brexit could take the issue off the table in the short-term.

Two days later she told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that people in Scotland should ask themselves whether they would be happy “to have the direction of our country determined by a right-wing Conservative government” for the next 20 years or whether Scots should take control of our own future?”

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson responded by saying that the First Minister would be leaving Scotland in limbo.