A DUP MLA inaccurately told Stormont’s Standards Commissioner that he never denied having used the phrase “except the nutters” to describe opponents of the Maze peace centre, a phone recording has proved.
Jimmy Spratt made the whispered comment at a Stormont committee hearing last June — something he initially denied when it was put to him in a general way at the committee and specifically when contacted by the News Letter.
The Ulster Unionist Party reported the DUP man to the Assembly’s standards commissioner, Douglas Bain, and two weeks ago Mr Bain’s report into the affair, which was endorsed by the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee, exonerated Mr Spratt over the incident.
But evidence held by the News Letter proves that, contrary to what Mr Spratt now says and what Mr Bain agreed had been the case, the MLA explicitly denied having used the phrase in question.
A recording of Mr Spratt speaking to the News Letter proves that his version of what he said is wrong. That evidence was never seen by Mr Bain as the News Letter was never told that Mr Spratt was challenging the accuracy of our report.
Mr Spratt’s claim that he had never denied saying “except the nutters” formed a key part of Mr Bain’s overall decision to clear Mr Spratt.
Last June, Mr Spratt went so far as to threaten legal action if this newspaper reported what he had said. Yet, more than six months after we reported his use of the phrase, the South Belfast MLA has yet to complain that he was misquoted, let alone commence legal proceedings for libel.
The episode began during a meeting of the committee which scrutinises Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department. As the DUP’s Brenda Hale said that in her constituency she had yet to meet anyone who objected the Maze peace centre (which has since been scrapped by Mr Robinson), Mr Spratt interjected: “Except the nutters”.
Later, when the chairman, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, raised the issue by saying “some of your interventions, such as calling the people who are against the peace-building centre at the Maze ‘nutters’, have not been helpful”, Mr Spratt replied: “I did not say that.” A sharp exchange ensued.
The following day, after listening to the official Assembly audio recording of the hearing, the News Letter contacted Mr Spratt. A recording of that phone conversation proves that when it was put to Mr Spratt that the Assembly audio appeared to show that he had used the phrase “except the nutters”, Mr Spratt spoke up to say emphatically: “No, absolutely not, Sam. You print that if you want. I’ll be seeing you in court as well. OK?”
Later in the call, which lasted one minute and 14 seconds, Mr Spratt said there was “absolutely no hint of that whatsoever” before again threatening legal action and ending the call.
However, despite the fact that Mr Spratt has never before claimed that the News Letter misquoted over the issue, the commissioner found that Mr Spratt had never denied saying “except the nutters”. Mr Bain’s report found that “there is no independent evidence of what was said during that telephone conversation. It would, in my opinion, be inconceivable that Mr Spratt, having made clear at the committee hearing that he had used the phrase ‘except the nutters’ [Mr Spratt did not, in fact accept during the meeting that he had used the phrase ‘except the nutters’], would later deny using the phrase when speaking to Mr McBride”.
He added: “I am satisfied that the account given to me by Mr McBride was his honest recollection...Mr Spratt conducted the conversation on his mobile phone and according to him reception was poor. I believe that the most likely explanation of the two conflicting accounts of what was said is that Mr Spratt’s account is accurate and that Mr McBride, perhaps due to reception difficulties, simply misheard or misunderstood what had been said to him.”
Following the report from Mr Bain — who before his current role was Northern Ireland’s chief electoral officer — Mr Spratt wrote to Stormont’s Standards and Privileges Committee, which has the power to accept or reject the commissioner’s findings, and said: “The one matter that annoyed me most about this complaint was Mr Swann’s assertion that I had been dishonest, when in fact at no time did I deny the use of the words ‘except the nutters’”. Mr Spratt then went further, suggesting that he had been the subject of “inaccurate and false allegations” and pressing for his accusers to be themselves “subject to Assembly sanctions”.
The committee overwhelmingly approved Mr Bain’s report, with DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and Green Party support. Only the UUP member voted against the report.
In the wake of the report, when contacted by the News Letter, Mr Spratt again insisted that he had never denied using the phrase. “I mean if you read the Belfast Telegraph on the night the actual incident took place you’ll find that I didn’t deny it and I didn’t deny it in the committee either...”
When it was put to Mr Spratt that last year, he had denied to the News Letter ever saying “except the nutters”, Mr Spratt said: “That’s not right, Sam. I think you’d better check your recollections better than that....” At that point, when he was told that there was a recording of what he had said which proved that he had denied using the phrase, Mr Spratt said: “You do have a recording? And did you tell me that [I] was being recorded...and are you not supposed to do that under Data Protection? [An inaccurate claim, see story below]. “Sam, I have nothing further to say to you on this matter so good day.”
The News Letter contacted Mr Bain and the Assembly issued a short statement on his behalf: “The investigation into the complaint against Mr Spratt was carried out in accordance with the relevant procedures. The report submitted to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and accepted by them, took account of all the evidence made available to the commissioner.”