Stormont’s standards watchdog has ruled that a DUP MLA did not lie or otherwise break Assembly rules after using the word “nutters” to describe Maze peace centre opponents.
The probe by the Assembly Commissioner for Standards, Douglas Bain, was endorsed by MLAs from the Committee on Standards and Privileges and is the second to clear Jimmy Spratt over the incident.
The controversy began in a Stormont committee hearing when DUP MLA Brenda Hale said that she had yet to meet anyone in her constituency who opposed the Maze centre, and Mr Spratt whispered “except the nutters”.
When he was challenged by the committee chairman, Mike Nesbitt, Mr Spratt said “I certainly was not calling ... anyone that has opposition to the Maze nutters.”
The following day, when the News Letter put to Mr Spratt that an Assembly recording of the meeting indicated that he had said “except the nutters”, he said “no, absolutely not” and threatened legal action against us.
In his initial report six months ago, Mr Bain had accepted Mr Spratt’s version of events and said it was “inconceivable” that he would have denied using the phrase “except the nutters”.
However, the News Letter had recorded the phone interview in which Mr Spratt clearly denied using the phrase. When we made public that recording, Mr Bain launched a second investigation and ordered the News Letter to give him a copy of the recording.
This second report was placed on the Assembly website last Friday. Mr Bain ruled that when he was speaking to the News Letter Mr Spratt “incorrectly but honestly believed” that he was being asked about what the South Belfast MLA alleged was a “spun” version of events.
The report said: “The commissioner is clear that Mr McBride genuinely believed that Mr Spratt had denied using the words ‘except the nutters’ at the OFMdFM committee meeting.
“However, the commissioner is also satisfied that Mr Spratt believed, incorrectly, that he was being asked whether he had used words to the effect that all those who were opposed to the building of the peace building and Conflict Resolution Centre at the Maze were nutters.”
The report also reveals a claim by Mr Spratt to be aware of specific News Letter phone calls – but he refused to divulge how he had such knowledge.
Mr Spratt told Mr Bain that he had “knowledge of telephone conversations that took place between [Sam McBride] and others from another political party – two political parties” on a specified evening.
MLA ‘Wrong to call reporter liar’
Douglas Bain said that Jimmy Spratt was wrong to allege that News Letter reporter Sam McBride’s allegation that Mr Spratt had denied using the word nutters at that committee meeting was “lies”.
Even though the commissioner believes that Mr Spratt did not deny saying “nutters” at the meeting, he said – and MLAs agreed – that the article which appeared in this newspaper “was most certainly not a lie: there was not even a hint of any attempt to deceive.
“It follows that Mr Spratt’s description of the allegation against him as ‘lies’ was inappropriate and incorrect.”