Jonathan Bell has referred the News Letter to a legal firm after the paper contacted him for a response to a claim by Arlene Foster that he had “intimidated” people – including her.
The First Minister had made the remarks in a BBC interview late on Thursday night, as part of a show focussing on the fiasco surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
In that broadcast, she had described a meeting in which she claimed he used his “physical bulk to stand over me in quite an aggressive way”.
She went on to make other claims, including that other women had been “intimidated” by him too.
The News Letter attempted to seek his response to her comments, and last night Mr Bell responded by e-mail to say: “I have instructed Johnsons Law to answer any allegations raised.”
The News Letter then contacted Johnsons’ lawyer Paul Tweed – senior partner at the firm, and known as a specialist in defamation law – who confirmed that Mr Bell had consulted the firm.
Speaking to the BBC’s Stephen Nolan late on Thursday night, Mrs Foster had suggested that civil servants and politicians knew a different Jonathan Bell to the one who had appeared in interviews that day, in which he had attacked the handling of the hugely-contentious RHI scheme.
Mr Bell – who, like Mrs Foster, is a former minister at the trade department which administered the botched scheme – had said Mrs Foster had shouted at him to keep the scheme going.
Mrs Foster said that “rather than me being abusive with him, he was very aggressive with me”.
Recalling an encounter with him, she said: “Well I was sitting in my room and he came in and used his physical bulk to stand over me in quite an aggressive way.
“So much so that he was, not physically, but he was told to step back.”
She went on to say that the “Jonathan Bell that appears on your programme tonight is not a Jonathan Bell that would be familiar to many of his political colleagues, to many of his civil servants he worked with in the department... or indeed to many the business community.
“I’ve many female colleagues who have felt intimidated and felt bullied by Jonathan over the years. I certainly felt on that...”
At that point Mr Nolan interjected to state that Mr Bell would “emphatically deny” such a claim.
She replied: “I have felt intimidated by Jonathan Bell on occasion.
“And I certainly did on that occasion. So all of this nonsense that I was aggressive to him – it’s quite the contrary.”
The DUP press office was asked why, if his behaviour was really as described, Mr Bell had been able to rise to such senior party positions, and why the party did not act to curb any such alleged behaviour.
It did not specifically address this point, but said: “The First Minister has been very clear about her account of the meeting with Jonathan Bell and this can be confirmed.”
Prior to Jonathan Bell’s account of what he knew about the RHI being aired by the BBC, a preview clip had been broadcast in which he pledged to tell the truth about what he knew of the scheme, even though he believed it may wreck his career.
In response to this clip, Arlene Foster had said “I think he has stepped outside of party lines. He has not communicated with me in any way recently. “It will be a matter now for the party officers as to which action they take.
Asked yesterday what course of action the party is currently taking, a DUP spokesman said, “Matters of discipline and process under the rules of the party are a matter for the party officers.
“The party officers will be meeting soon to discuss issues, including appropriate disciplinary action to be taken against Jonathan Bell.”