Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt breaks silence on that photo saying it was 'only a bit of fun' with Belfast pensioner

By Noel McAdam

Mike Nesbitt has finally broken his silence about the startling picture which saw him sprawled across a hotel foyer - describing the encounter as "only a bit of fun".

After a week of refusing to comment, the former Ulster Unionist leader insisted the incident involving an elderly woman at a wedding party "was just banter and play-acting".

Read more: Why politicians who give us the old silent treatment risk disdain

He insisted - despite the dramatic picture showing him lying face down in the lobby of the Stormont Hotel - that "nothing untoward took place".

The Sunday Life yesterday revealed that the woman involved - Marie Hyland, a great granny who is in her 70s - said it was a joke "blown up out of all proportion".

Mrs Hyland is the grandmother of boxer Paul Hyland, and added that Mr Nesbitt was "nothing but friendly to me. I'd gladly have a drink with him in the future".

But the West Belfast woman said media coverage has left her "upset" and that she is battling a number of illnesses which forced her to miss the First Holy Communion of two of her great-grandchildren on Saturday.

"I haven't slept properly since all this nonsense came out. I'm not a well woman, I can't even walk up the stairs, I have to sleep in the living room," she said.

"It's rubbish to even think I could knock a man out. Hopefully now I've told you this, people will stop going on about it."

Explaining the background to the pictures which made the front page of The Sun newspaper last Monday and sparked much speculation, Mrs Hyland went on: "It was a misunderstanding.

"I was at a wedding in the hotel and Mike Nesbitt was there - he had been out playing golf with his friends.

"There was a bit of banter and he lay down on the floor. I got on top of him, we were messing around, and his friend was taking photos. His friend was actually telling us how to pose.

"I didn't punch him, in fact I never laid a finger on him."

Marie, who is well respected in her local community, said she was mortified when the innocent snap of them larking around in the lobby of the east Belfast hotel appeared on the front of the English tabloid newspaper.

"I couldn't believe it, I was mortified. It was all a joke because he is a unionist and I'm from the Falls Road," she added.

In a statement Mr Nesbitt said: "I am very reluctant to make a public statement about a social night out during which nothing untoward took place.

"However, the son of one of the women in the wedding party from the Stormont Hotel has contacted me to tell me his mother was deeply distressed following an unsolicited call to her house by a member of the print media.

"Her son tells me she confirmed to the journalist all that happened was just a bit of fun, banter and play-acting. He then asked me if I would make a public statement to that effect.

"For that reason, and that reason only, I wish to clarify that my engagement with the wedding party was only a bit of fun, and has been blown totally out of context by the publication of the photograph in The Sun newspaper."

Mr Nesbitt directed any follow-up questions from journalists to his solicitor Paul Tweed.

Last week he had only said "things happened" when he went to the hotel with three friends and added: "When you have a profile and you go out in public, you can't expect people to fully respect your privacy."

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