Peter Robinson and Jim Allister were last night locked in an extraordinary public spat over allegations from the First Minister about a land deal.
The First Minister, responding to a question about his U-turn on the Maze peace centre, alleged in the Assembly that Mr Allister had been the executor of a will which saw land sold to a republican.
There was uproar in the chamber as Mr Robinson claimed under Parliamentary privilege that Mr Allister had benefited from the deal.
Later, making a point of order in the Assembly, the TUV leader accused Mr Robinson of a “malicious falsehood” – that is, deliberately lying about the issue in an attempt to damage him.
And Sinn Fein last night weighed into the intra-unionist dispute, claiming that Mr Robinson was giving the impression that it was “not OK to sell land to Catholics”.
With relations strained between the DUP and Sinn Fein, a statement released through the Sinn Fein press office called on Mr Robinson to explain his comments.
Last night, Mr Allister released a detailed statement setting out his side of the story and claimed that Mr Robinson had “crossed the line” of what is acceptable in politics.
The clash began when Mr Robinson was responding to a question about where the Maze peace centre money would go. Mr Robinson said: “This is the same Member who comes in here week after week – and the man from Mars would think he was breathing fire on republicans – and he chides me for doing business with republicans. But then secretly and outside of this House, the Member as the executor of a will is selling land to republicans in Co Fermanagh to benefit his own family.”
As Mr Allister got to his feet to protest, Mr Robinson went on: “So it ill-becomes him to come to this House beating his chest as if he’s going to be tough on republicans.”
Mr Robinson’s voice was almost drowned out as DUP MLAs laughed, Mr Allister protested and Speaker Willie Hay repeatedly shouted “Order!”
As Mr Allister shouted over the Speaker that he “refuted” the allegations, Mr Robinson laughed. Mr Allister said over the Speaker: “I demand a retraction.”
Business carried on until, at the end of Question Time 90 minutes later, Mr Allister raised what had earlier taken place, asking the Speaker what protection there was for members who were subject to “malicious falsehoods” legally protected by Parliamentary privilege.
Although Mr Allister made clear he was not the executor of the will and had not benefitted, Mr Robinson claimed that he was “dancing on the head of a pin” and claimed “everyone knows” Mr Allister benefited from the will.
Last night, Mr Allister said that the will was that of his wife’s late brother who died last year. The North Antrim MLA said it was “frankly largely private family business”, adding: “I regret that my wife and her family have been dragged into the politicking of the First Minister.”
Mr Allister said that his brother-in-law had owned a farm in Fermanagh and had made a will several years ago with the then practising local solicitor, Arlene Foster.
He said that the contents of the will had not been revealed until after his brother-in-law’s death, when it became known that he had appointed a nephew as executor “with instructions to sell the farm and divide the proceeds between six named beneficiaries, of which my wife is one. I am neither the executor, nor a beneficiary”.
Mr Allister accused Mr Robinson of abusing Parliamentary privilege to make the allegations and said that immediately after Mr Robinson’s Question Time in the Chamber ended he went to the First Minister’s room and “confronted him with the truth”.
Mr Allister said that he urged the DUP leader to retract his comments: “I asked him to be man enough to come to the House and withdraw his false allegation. I then returned to the House and on a Point of Order asked what protection existed for members against malicious falsehoods.
“The Speaker then permitted Mr Robinson to speak. Instead of facing up to his false allegation he tried to insist that I was benefitting from this sale. I am not.
“When I sought to reply the Speaker refused to let me speak, but he did take a Point of Order from another DUP colleague, Mr Weir.
“I accept the rough and tumble of politics and I’m not a shrinking violet, but when a blatant falsehood is peddled the line of acceptable conduct has been crossed.”