Belfast Telegraph

Friday 27 May 2016

Cleared Wells in war of words with his accuser Dickson

DUP man demands apology from his Alliance rival as Stormont says he’s innocent of alleged sexist remarks... but Dickson stands firm

By Noel McAdam

Published 25/02/2016

The DUP’s Jim Wells (pictured) has been cleared of any wrongdoing after he was reported to Stormont’s standards body by Stewart Dickson
The DUP’s Jim Wells (pictured) has been cleared of any wrongdoing after he was reported to Stormont’s standards body by Stewart Dickson
Stewart Dickson

A jubilant Jim Wells has demanded an apology from an Alliance MLA after a complaint over recent alleged sexist remarks in the Assembly was thrown out.

Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain rejected the complaint from Stewart Dickson over the former Health Minister's comments before a Stormont committee meeting.

He ruled DUP MLA Mr Wells' remarks did not amount to sex discrimination and did not breach the Assembly code of conduct.

The verdict came less than a week after the Assembly's standards and privileges committee also rejected a separate complaint from Sinn Fein on the controversial conversation.

Before the committee got under way, Mr Wells was recorded telling Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey that a woman civil servant who had walked through the room had scared him "out of his wits".

He joked the woman reminded him of DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, adding: "She wouldn't take prisoners".

Then seconds later, he quipped: "I'm brilliant with women under the age of eight and great with those over the age of 80 - it's the ones in between I can't cope with, between eight to 80."

Mr Dickson immediately lodged a request with the Commissioner to investigate whether the remarks had "brought the Assembly into disrepute" and amounted to sex discrimination.

After being cleared yesterday Mr Wells said that "even by the standards of some of the ludicrous complaints made in the past, Stewart Dickson's reached an all-time low".

"It was clear that Mr Dickson quickly realised that his complaint was totally without foundation and he was also embarrassed when MLA Hussey also told the press that his allegations were totally untrue," said Mr Wells.

"Once he realised that he had made such a major error of judgment, Mr Dickson should have immediately withdrawn his complaint and issued me with an apology. Instead, he persisted with his ridiculous accusations and now has to face the public humiliation of the commissioner's total rejection of his complaint.

"I would call upon Mr Dickson to now apologise to me for his conduct and give an undertaking that he will actually check his facts before making any further complaints."

But Mr Dickson made clear no apology would be forthcoming. "The commissioner in his letter makes clear my complaint was perfectly valid, but he has decided the words used did not amount to sexual discrimination. I have to accept that," he said.

"But he does not deal with the issue of bringing the Assembly into disrepute. I also did not rush out my press release. I checked all the facts carefully.

"Whilst I accept the commissioner's view, nevertheless I consider demeaning remarks about women in a poor light. It is not for me to apologise, but rather Mr Wells for conducting such an inappropriate conversation.

"This whole incident serves to demonstrate the need for appropriate language to be used at all times by our public representatives."

In his finding, commissioner Bain concluded: "On a fair reading of the alleged comments they were plainly about Mr Wells' view of his ability to deal with women between the ages of eight and 80 years.

"Without investigation it is not possible to say whether the alleged comments represent his actual view of his ability or whether they were jocular in nature.

"Whatever the case, they were comments about him and not about women in general far less about any particular female person.

"Whilst the alleged comments were about his ability to deal with a cohort of women they in no way discriminated against members of that cohort by, for example, suggesting that they should be treated less favorably than others. Nor did they incite discrimination or hatred against those in that cohort."

A second complaint brought on behalf of Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon was dismissed last week by the committee for standards and privileges as "inadmissible".

Mr Wells confronted Ms Fearon in the Assembly chamber after a media storm over his remarks broke and insisted a remark she had posted on social media was defamatory.

Culture and Arts Minister Caral Ni Chuilin intervened as they were speaking and SF's chief whip Catriona Ruane then lodged the formal complaint.

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