Northern Ireland news

Christopher Stalford: DUP MLA who mocked UUP counterpart over Papal reception claims it was a 'joke'

 DUP MLAs Christopher Stalford and Mervyn Storey criticised and ridiculed the UUP's Robbie Butler

A DUP MLA who ridiculed an Ulster Unionist counterpart after he attended a reception in Dublin for Pope Francis has insisted the exchange was a "joke" between friends.

Christopher Stalford told The Irish News he would "never mock or deride" someone because of their religious beliefs after it emerged that he had blessed himself as he passed Lagan Valley MLA Robbie Butler at Stormont.

Weeks earlier Mr Stalford had attended the GAA Ulster Final in Clones with his party leader Arlene Foster as part of a series of outreach gestures.

It has also been revealed that former finance minister Mervyn Storey challenged Mr Butler over his attendance at August's event for the Pope at Dublin Castle.

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The North Antrim MLA, who is an elder at the Hebron Free Presbyterian church in Ballymoney, wagged his finger at the Ulster Unionist and labelled the pontiff "the anti-Christ".

Mr Butler, a born-again Christian and deacon in the Elim Church, said he was "stunned" by the behaviour of Mr Storey and Mr Stalford.

The DUP was widely criticised for snubbing the invitation from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to August's reception for Pope Francis at Dublin Castle.

Stormont’s other main parties all sent representatives to the event, which was also attended by politicians from the Republic and members of civic society from across Ireland.

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Mrs Foster was away with her family over the weekend of Pope Francis’s visit but unlike other parties whose leaders were unable to attend, the DUP did not send a representative in her place.

The DUP's Christopher Stalford and party leader Arlene Foster attending the Ulster GAA final in June

The former first minister said the invite from the taoiseach was a “personal invitation”.

The Irish News yesterday contacted the two DUP MLAs.

After initially offering no comment, Mr Storey said: "I've more important things to be worrying about than what Robbie Butler claims."

Mr Stalford said he was surprised that Mr Butler had publicised the incident, insisting it was a "joke" between friends.

"I would never mock or deride someone because of their religious belief because I am a man of religious belief," he said.

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"At the time it was clear to me that the incident with Robbie Butler was between friends enjoying a joke in the context of mounting speculation, including in The Irish News, that I would be attending the event in Dublin – I am surprised that three months later I am being accused of anything other than that."

Mr Butler was widely praised for attending the civic reception during the first papal visit to Ireland in almost 40 years, however, some – including party colleagues – were critical.

Former South Down UUP MLA Harold McKee said Mr Butler "doesn't represent me as a member of the UUP".

Last night SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was disappointed to learn that senior elected representatives think it is "acceptable to mock or belittle another representative in the corridors of our shared institution".

“Credit must go to Robbie Butler, who in attending the Papal visit in Dublin, showed the much more accepting and tolerant side of unionist leadership that has been lacking of late," he said.

Following the revelations in The Irish News on Monday, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he wanted to get to the bottom of the allegations.

Sir Jeffrey said he knew Mr Butler well and had "a high regard for him".

The MP said the behaviour was "not acceptable" and that he would be happy to speak to Mr Butler to hear the details of what happened.

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