The DUP has sought to distance itself from a personal attack by its MP Ian Paisley on the News Letter’s political editor.
At the weekend, Mr Paisley published online a 750-word personal attack on Sam McBride in response to an analysis piece which was published in Saturday’s newspaper.
The News Letter article had explored the possibility of Stormont returning by October 21 – the date on which abortion will be decriminalised unless devolution is restored.
The article reported the views of DUP members who said they believed that the party had calculated that it would lose more votes by accepting an Irish language act, the likely price of restoring Stormont, rather than allowing the abortion change to go through.
Mr Paisley responded with intemperate and defamatory claims against Mr McBride, including false allegations, a reference to his school and a description of him as a “despicable and low character”. A DUP councillor then widened it to the journalist’s family.
On Monday, the National Union of Journalists described Mr Paisley’s actions as “a clear attempt to smear the professional reputation of a conscientious journalist”.
In a letter to Mr Paisley yesterday , News Letter editor Alistair Bushe said: “I was appalled to see your egregious and defamatory personal attacks on my political editor, Sam McBride, and on the News Letter ... your statements are plainly false, and although I am not a lawyer, I have no doubt they are highly defamatory of him.”
Mr Bushe asked Mr Paisley to remove the post and publish a retraction. In the letter, copied to DUP leader Arlene Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Mr Bushe added: “I sincerely hope that this matter will be resolved without delay, so that we can each move on to perform our different roles at this time of political crisis for Northern Ireland and the country as a whole.
“However, please understand that neither Sam McBride nor I will tolerate your attacks on our respective reputations, or allow your false assertions to go unchallenged.”
Last night it appeared that Mr Paisley had removed his 750-word post from his Facebook page, where it had remained for three days. However, he did not publish an apology or retraction.
The DUP disputed that it had taken a decision to allow abortion “in order to avoid an Irish Language Act”, arguing that Sinn Féin had set “other preconditions” before Stormont could return. But in an implicit criticism of Mr Paisley’s attack the DUP added: “Concentration should be on the analysis rather than the author.”
Politicians from across the political divide condemned his actions. Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said it was “extremely disappointing, but typical of Mr Paisley, in that it is a clear example of where he has played the man rather than the ball” and that for others to drag Mr McBride’s family into social media attacks was “pathetic”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said that it “does nothing for Mr Paisley’s case and credibility to attack Sam McBride as an ‘intellectually weak and a simplistic fellow’. This is something which anyone with even a passing knowledge of Sam and his work will dismiss immediately. To bring Christianity into his tirade of abuse makes Mr Paisley sound all the more hollow.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “As politicians, we can often get annoyed at critical articles. This, though, is a total disgrace ... solidarity with Sam McBride – a top class journalist.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long said that Mr Paisley’s comments were “completely and totally out of order”. She added: “It is bullying and the DUP need to take action swiftly.”