Michelle O’Neill has challenged Jim Allister to repeat his claim that she “misled” Stormont over a PPE shipment without the protection of Assembly privilege.
The deputy first minister warned that if Mr Allister repeated the allegation outside the Assembly chamber she would take “any step necessary to vindicate my position”.
The TUV leader made the claim during a Stormont debate on Tuesday, accusing Ms O’Neill of misleading MLAs last month with an assertion that a contract for protective equipment from China for healthcare workers had been signed.
The order ultimately failed to materialise. Sinn Fein’s finance minister subsequently said the order was not completed because bigger international players, such as the US and India, had muscled in on the prospective deal with a Chinese supplier.
Raising a point of order in the chamber on Tuesday, Mr Allister accused Ms O’Neill of misleading the House and urged principal deputy speaker Christopher Stalford to refer the matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee.
During the daily Covid-19 media briefing later on Tuesday, Ms O’Neill responded to the comments.
“Let me say this very clearly, I stand over every word that I said in the Assembly chamber on the 23rd of March and if Jim Allister wants to repeat his comments outside the privilege of the chamber then I’ll take any step that’s necessary to vindicate my position.
“I think just on an aside to that, I think that, by and large I’d say the majority of MLAs have been very constructive, very supportive in trying to work our way through this, but there’s a few, like Jim, who like to just petty political points score.
“But sure that’s his prerogative. My job is to save lives.”
Earlier, Mr Allister told the Assembly: “Any parliament or assembly worthy of the name takes a serious view of a minister misleading it, and it is such an episode that I want to draw to your attention.
“On 23 March, the deputy first minister, no less, told the House that the Executive had signed a contract for PPE, implying that it was with China and causing great hope and expectation amongst our hard-pressed National Health Service workers.
“It turned out there was no such contract. I say that on the basis of what her colleague the finance minister, Mr Murphy, told the Finance Committee on 8 April, which was that no contract had been signed.
“He did not know why the deputy first minister had claimed that and, I say, misled the House.”
The House was misled by a senior ministerJim Allister
Mr Allister said Tuesday’s debate on coronavirus regulations would have presented Ms O’Neill with a chance to correct the record and apologise.
“It is clear that she has not done that,” he said as the debate concluded.
He referred to two comments by Ms O’Neill during March’s Assembly exchanges – one when she stated a contract had been “signed” and the other when she said the Executive, through the finance department, had been able to “secure a contract”.
“None of that was correct,” said Mr Allister. “The House was misled by a senior minister.”
In response, Mr Stalford urged Mr Allister to write to the Speaker’s Office to seek a ruling on the issue.