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Disproportionate coverage of Ian Paisley jnr’s affairs - No, merely the facts

Ian Paisley jnr took to the airwaves this week, to attack the reporting of the controversies that led to his resignation as a minister 13 months ago.

This followed an Assembly Standards investigation which dismissed a complaint from anti-agreement unionist Lyle Cubitt.

Mr Cubitt had queried the sum paid by Mr Paisley jnr for a holiday home.

Standards Commissioner Tom Frawley rejected the complaint after finding support for the price from an estate agent who marketed the development.

Mr Paisley jnr has every right to defend his corner, and to highlight that once again he has been found not to have broken any rules.

But his comments on Radio Ulster on Monday could have given a mistaken impression.

The DUP MLA said the dismissed complaint involved “hurtful” claims made by a “political rival who I beat in a previous election”.

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He added: “And indeed they partly resulted in me having to stand down as a minister in government, as a result of the disproportionate media circus that went around with the claims that were made.”

For the record, Mr Cubitt's complaint to the Assembly Standards Committee was submitted in early June 2008.

That was almost four months after Mr Paisley jnr's resignation.

There was no connection between the resignation and the Cubitt complaint — unless time travel was somehow involved.

Moreover, this newspaper did not report on the complaint at any time, prior to this week. Nor are we aware of anyone else covering it.

Mr Paisley jnr also accused the media more generally of reporting “innuendo” against him, of “hounding” him and his wife, and of running months of “disproportionate coverage”.

That presumably includes the many articles in this newspaper centring on Mr Paisley jnr's links to developer — and DUP member — Seymour Sweeney.

But the facts of our reports are not in doubt.

Mr Paisley jnr and his father did lobby repeatedly for Mr Sweeney's Giant's Causeway visitor centre plans. This included claiming to a public body — inaccurately — that the developer had the approval of international body Unesco for his scheme.

Mr Paisley jnr also lobbied for the sale of government land at Ballee, Ballymena when Mr Sweeney was one of the prospective purchasers.

This continued under devolution, when he protested to fellow Minister Margaret Ritchie about the price her department was seeking for the land.

However, the valuation was actually the responsibility of the DUP-headed Department of Finance.

It is also a fact that Mr Paisley jnr and his father received unpaid assistance from Mr Sweeney when establishing their sizeable new constituency office in Ballymena in 2007.

The mortgage for this property, at 9-11 Church Street, was secured in the developer's name. And Mr Sweeney was for a five-month period the sole director of the company Sarcon 250. It owns the large office and rents it to the Paisleys.

It has been emphasised that there is no profit involved, with publicly-funded rental expenses being used to pay off the mortgage. The rental costs are the highest in the Assembly.

During the developer's period as a Sarcon 250 director in 2007, Mr Paisley jnr lobbied Minister Ritchie on the Ballee land, and spoke up in the Assembly on the Causeway centre scheme. When Mr Sweeney stood down from the office landlord company, he was replaced for a period by Mr Paisley Jnr's father-in-law.

That meant that the MLA was renting from a family member for a number of months — all within the Assembly rules, it should be stressed.

Mr Paisley jnr also lobbied up to Prime Ministerial level at the 2006 St Andrews talks on constituency issues — including the Ballee and Causeway matters. When this was brought to light by MEP Jim Allister in early 2008, there was obvious anger in DUP ranks. That was a factor in Mr Paisley Jnr's downfall, as was his party's shock defeat in the Dromore by-election.

Within two days of that result, details of the Sweeney link to the Ballymena constituency office emerged. Another two days later, the junior minister resigned.

To be fair, Mr Paisley jnr has been cleared in previous Assembly standards inquiries — on comments about being “repulsed” by homosexuality, and on an administrative blunder over the registration of his holiday home.

There is a remaining complaint in the Stormont system, over whether any of his Sweeney links should have been declared in the register of interests. His confidence suggests he expects to be cleared again, and that a conclusion that no rules have been broken will once again be reached.

These rules are set by MLAs themselves.

They have nothing to say on renting offices from relatives, and do not set size limits for offices funded from the public purse.

Nor do the rules cover the controversial St Andrews lobbying by Mr Paisley Jnr that so annoyed DUP colleagues.

But the Press has every right to examine such issues.

It's not innuendo, it's our job.

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