A complaint against a senior Democratic Unionist MLA risks undermining public trust in Stormont politicians, an Assembly watchdog warned.
Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain dismissed the claim against Jimmy Spratt and expressed concern that it had been supported unanimously by Ulster Unionists despite lacking substance.
UUP MLA Robin Swann alleged that Mr Spratt dishonestly denied using the phrase “nutters” to describe opponents of a peace and reconciliation centre at the former Maze site.
Mr Bain said: “I find it disturbing that in this case a complaint so lacking in substance was made following an unanimous decision of the Assembly group of a major political party.
“There is in my opinion a real risk that such unjustified complaints and publicity they attract will tend to undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the Assembly.”
A wide-ranging group of victims including unionists campaigned against building the peace centre at the Maze over fears it could become a shrine to terrorism due to its close association with the IRA hunger strikes.
The centre was discussed at a meeting of the Stormont committee, which Mr Spratt was part of, which scrutinises the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Mr Spratt has said his “nutters” comment was not directed at any groups or individuals.
The Commissioner found that it was an “aside”, principally aimed at a party colleague sitting beside him.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann complained about Mr Spratt’s comments, prompting an investigation by the standards watchdog.
The Commissioner said: “Mr Spratt’s did not, as suggested by Mr Swann, issue an apology for using the phrase ‘except the nutters’.
“Rather his apology was ‘for any hurt caused to those who believed my comments were directed at them’.”
His report said Mr Nesbitt’s version of what Mr Spratt had denied saying was simply inaccurate.
“I am clear that it was not unreasonable for Mr Spratt to interpret Mr Nesbitt’s comments as spinning and to describe them as such,” he added.
Following a summer of riots and republican commemorations by Sinn Fein and under pressure from some victims and unionists, DUP First Minister Peter Robinson pulled out of a plan to build the centre at the site of the high-security prison near Lisburn.
Mr Swann said: “We note the publication of Mr Bain’s report, but do not accept his conclusions.
“Regarding Mr Spratt’s statement, we will bless him with the mercy of our silence and wish him robust good health.”