Northern Ireland news

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says controversy around DUP MLAs' anti-Catholic behaviour is now a 'closed matter'

Christopher Stalford and Mervyn Storey ridiculed and criticised Robbie Butler 

THE DUP MP who said he wanted to "get the full facts" about anti-Catholic criticism and ridicule by two of the party's MLAs, now considers the matter "closed" because the Ulster Unionist at the centre of the controversy does not want it pursued.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he had spoken to Robbie Butler about exchanges on the corridors of Stormont in which the Lagan Valley MLA was mocked by his DUP counterparts for attending August's civic reception for Pope Francis.

Mr Butler declined to name those responsible, but The Irish News yesterday revealed that former Stormont minister Mervyn Storey and his DUP colleague Christopher Stalford had criticised and ridiculed him for accepting an invitation from the taoiseach to the Dublin Castle event.

Mr Storey is said to have challenged the Ulster Unionist MLA and during the exchange described Pope Francis as "the anti-Christ".

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Mr Stalford, who `blessed' himself as he passed Mr Butler in Parliament Buildings, insisted the gesture was a "joke" between friends.

The South Belfast MLA had been scheduled to discuss the controversy on U105's Frank Mitchell Show yesterday morning but failed to appear.

Mr Butler, who previously said he was "stunned" and "disappointed" by his fellow assembly members' behaviour, yesterday claimed he did not recognise the story as printed in The Irish News yesterday.

"It is not a fair representation of either myself nor the other MLAs named," he tweeted.

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When the story first appeared on Monday, without the identities of the DUP MLAs being revealed, Mr Butler did not raise any issue with its content.

The Ulster Unionist had attended the Papal reception in place of his party leader Robin Swann.

Former first minister Arlene Foster declined the invitation because she was on holiday but unlike other Stormont parties, the DUP was not represented in its leader's absence.

Earlier this week, Sir Jeffrey said he wanted to get the facts about happened, describing the behaviour of the party representives as "unacceptable".

However, yesterday he said he spoken to Mr Butler and the UUP assembly member told him he did not want the matter to go further.

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Sir Jeffrey said he now considered it closed.

Alliance leader Naomi Long last night said she was "disappointed" by the DUP politicians, particularly Mr Stalford, who she said had taken "flack" from other unionists for attending the GAA Ulster Final earlier this year.

"It was a poorly judged attempt at being funny but given the context it was in bad taste," the East Belfast assembly member said, adding anti-Catholic sentiments had no place in modern society.

"I am really surprised that sort of sentiment is still prevalent as I believed people were past that sort of thing."

Alban Maginness, former SDLP MLA and board member of the Iona Institute, said it was upsetting to hear such "blatant anti-Catholic rants".

"I thought we'd got over that sort of language, which is not reflective at all of contemporary Protestant thinking."

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