Land sale to Catholics row sparks Stormont crackdown
MLAs have been warned not to make offensive remarks to each other after a blazing row erupted between Peter Robinson and Jim Allister over the sale of land to Catholics.
Assembly Speaker Willie Hay issued the warning on remarks after the First Minister claimed, mistakenly as it turned out, that Mr Allister had sold land to republicans in his role as the executor of the will of a relative.
The comments were made as TUV and DUP MLAs joined in the argument which was later continued in a flurry of internet postings and a series of Press statements.
TUV sources hinted at the possibility of legal action if portions of a DUP press statement were reproduced out of context.
The atmosphere became heated on Monday when TUV leader Mr Allister asked Mr Robinson about his alleged U-turn on the Maze Long Kesh Reconciliation Centre.
The DUP leader had initially backed the £18m development but withdrew his support and effectively scuppered it over the summer.
After explaining his reasons, Mr Robinson rounded on Mr Allister.
"He chides me for doing business with republicans, but then secretly and outside of the House, the Member, as the executor of a will, is selling land to republicans in County Fermanagh to benefit his own family," the DUP leader alleged.
Mr Allister, who was not in fact the executor of the will, described Mr Robinson's comment as a "damnable lie".
A furious Mr Allister later went to Mr Robinson's office to demand a retraction and also met Mr Hay to complain about the accusation.
Remarks made in Stormont enjoy qualified privilege, which means that it is difficult to sue over them. Normally accusing someone of telling lies, that is saying something that is deliberately false, would be libellous and the TUV repeated the allegation online as well as in statements afterwards.
Last night, the DUP did not reply when asked if Mr Robinson was contemplating legal action over the allegation that he had lied. The party did reply to criticism from Sinn Fein's Sean Lynch, who said "the tone of Peter Robinson's remarks are essentially a signal that it is not OK to sell land to Catholics".
A DUP spokesman said that "as a general principle, it is entirely a matter for any person who they sell their property to".
A TUV statement branded DUP claims of "lack of consistency" by Mr Allister and the suggestion that his family had been "financially benefiting from doing business with republicans" as "false allegations".
In fact, Mr Allister took no part in the land sale.
Mr Hay said yesterday that he had studied the debate closely to investigate if any further action was required.
"It is clear to me that no allegations were made of unlawful behaviour, these were political points being made," he said.
However, he told MLAs that the debate fell below the standards expected.
"I will be keeping a watching brief on members who continually, from a sedentary position, say things that they should not be saying in this House," he said.
"There are some members of this House who fall far short of the standards that I expect in debates in this House."
Mr Hay reminded public representatives of the need for good temper and moderation in making their remarks.
"I try to give as much leniency to members as possible but a good turn in this House sometimes really means nothing to some members," he added.
Meanwhile, a Fermanagh man involved in a land sale row said the First Minister should apologise to him and his relatives.
The man, who asked to remain anonymous, told the BBC that he wants Mr Robinson to withdraw his accusations against the family.
STORY SO FAR
Once political comrades, now First Minister Peter Robinson and North Antrim MLA Jim Allister are bitter enemies. Their increasingly personal row over a land sale sees both men on home turf – Allister is a barrister and Robinson was once an estate agent. Allister was a founder DUP member in 1971, but quit politics in 1987 when relations with Ian Paisley soured over a voting pact with the UUP. He returned to the fold in 2004, when he was elected an MEP. Three years later he resigned again, in protest at the DUP decision to enter government with Sinn Fein.
Accusation over land sale rakes up decades-old sensitivities
THE argument between Mr Allister and Mr Robinson drags up old sensitivities about the sale of 'Protestant' land to Catholics along the Fermanagh border, writes Liam Clarke.
During the Troubles some of the dwindling Protestant community accused the IRA of a process of "ethnic cleansing" by attacking Protestants, many of whom were part-time soldiers in the UDR. The purchase of Protestant farms was sometimes portrayed as part of the same process.
Both churches and loyal orders were concerned. An organisation known as the Ulster Land and Property Company (ULPC) was for many years administered from the Orange Order's headquarters. The purpose was to either buy land itself or to lend money to Protestants so that they could do so.
It is said to be still in existence but low in funds.
"In practice there are not enough Protestants left along the border to buy land," one source said, claiming that similar funds had existed to benefit Catholics.
In 2004, a ULPC brochure bearing the slogan 'Ulster is being sold, help us buy it' was distributed to members of the Loyal Orders. It described itself as the "landholding body of the Loyal Orange Institution".
An earlier 2002 brochure said that over 1,200 Orangemen were contributing to the ULPC, claiming that the number had increased "significantly" in recent years.
It added that the company had bought 15 properties in Northern Ireland and one in Co Donegal, valued in total at £1,458,500, since 1995.
The Robinson-Allister dispute revolves around the sale of land at Ardmoney, near Brookeborough, on the Fermanagh border. It belonged to Jim Allister's brother-in- law Bertie who died of cancer in August of last year.
His will was drawn up on his instructions by Arlene Foster, the DUP minister, in her role as a solicitor.
It specified that the land should be sold and divided between Bertie's siblings, including Mr Allister's wife Ruth. A nephew, and not Jim Allister, was the executor. Legally an executor must handle a will in the way that will bring maximum financial benefit to the estate, which usually means selling to the highest bidder.
In this case, although another relative was interested in the land, the successful bidder was a Catholic who was given time to find the money.
Orange Order sources say there has been some controversy about the sale amongst local loyalists.