Prior to the birth of Prince George on 22 July 2013, Mr. Flanagan retweeted and favourited a crude joke from a County Tyrone comedian. The MLA later issued an apology for having retweeted the comment. and later removed the tweet from his twitter feed. He maintains that he believed that the original tweet was an innocent joke and didn’t appreciate its crude meaning until after the approach from the Impartial Reporter. This is an explanation that the Standards Commissioner found “hard to accept” and “extremely naïve.”
TUV MLA Jim Allister lodged a complaint with the Assembly Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain, alleging that Mr. Flanagan had breached the code of conduct. The Commissioner opened the investigation, which included separate interviews with Mr. Flanagan and Mr. Allister.
Six months later, the Commissioner has published an 84-page report on the 140 character tweet.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has now ruled that the retweet was offensive but “it was a crude ‘joke’ which demeaned Mr Flanagan rather than the Royal Family.” The Committee stated: “Undoubtedly the comments were crass and Mr. Flanagan’s retweeting of them was ill-advised.” However, it recognised that Mr. Flanagan’s response was “appropriate.” The Committee “does not believe that it was in anyone’s interest to prolong consideration of the matter any further.”
The Commissioner was not satisfied that Mr. Flanagan had been acting in his official capacity. He ruled that, even if Mr. Flanagan had been acting as an MLA, the retweet did not constitute a breach of the code of conduct. Mr. Bain also decided that Mr. Flanagan’s actions were not likely to have any significant impact on community relations.
In response to the ruling, Mr. Flanagan told The Impartial Reporter: “As I made clear at the time, this was an error of judgment after I misconstrued the meaning of a tweet and re-tweeted it. I subsequently apologised for doing so. I believe it was not an issue that should have been brought before the Assembly Standards Commissioner.”
Jim Allister also commented on the ruling, saying: “Phil Flanagan’s claim not to understand it is frankly an insult to people’s intelligence and this wasn’t the first time Flanagan engaged in such behaviour on twitter.