Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster has described the distressing impact of a tweet sent by a celebrity doctor about an unsubstantiated rumour of an affair.

During libel proceedings, the High Court in Belfast heard how Dr Christian Jessen's initial tweet was sent on 23 December 2019, and followed up with other "aggravating" tweets.

Ms Foster told the court the incident came at a particularly stressful time when she was involved in talks to resurrect the power-sharing government in the region.

She said she felt the rumour of the affair with a close protection officer, which she described as having emerged online from anonymous accounts before the tweet by Dr Jessen, was designed to destabilise her at a critical time.

Dr Jessen is best known for the Embarrassing Bodies TV show on Channel 4.

"I think the attack on me personally and my marriage was meant to destabilise me at a very critical time," she told the court.

"It was meant to destabilise me and thereby destabilise the negotiations as well. I have no proof of that, but I just think the timing of it is very significant given when it came."

Ms Foster said she had to sit down with her two elder children, then aged 17 and 19, to talk to them about it, as well as her elderly mother, then aged 85, and assure them the rumour was not true, adding: "It was not a conversation that I would like to repeat."

Asked how she felt about it, she replied: "Very very upset.

"Having to speak to my husband and explain to him what had happened, because this gentleman has a large following, so this was going to go quite far and wide," she added.

"It was very humiliating, I have to say, to see that the relationship that is most important to me had been trashed, if you like, and got put out there in the public domain in that fashion.

"There wasn't much sleep on the night of 23 December.

"I spoke to my husband and we decided we needed to take action because this was only going to continue to grow. I therefore contacted my solicitor and asked him to take action in relation to the matter."

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Ms Foster said the rumours went further, including that she had moved out of the family home and was living in a hotel, that her husband was living in a hotel, and the family had broken down.

"Those closest to me of course knew that it wasn't true, but they were asked questions by other people," she said.

The court heard that Dr Jessen responded to a tweet by solicitor Paul Tweed on 24 December, putting him on notice about the content of the tweet, with the short form "lol", which means "laughing out loud".

He then responded to an email from the solicitor on 7 January and removed the tweet.

The court heard there was a "further aggravating tweet" on 26 December in which Dr Jessen wrote he was being compared to Barbra Streisand, saying: "this gay boys life cannot get any better", which was accompanied by exclamation marks and a number of emojis.

This was described by Ms Foster's legal team as a "sneering tweet".

However, Dr Jessen has not responded to correspondence since, the court heard.

Speaking about the contact with Dr Jessen, David Ringland QC, acting for Ms Foster, told the court: "I suspected he had more service than anybody in the history in these courts in terms of the number and manner of service.

"In terms of the service of each of these steps, the same approach has been taken by the defendant as he has taken to every aspect of this case - in other words, head in the sand, completely ignoring, not responding."

Dr Jessen was described in court as a medical doctor who practices as a GP on Harley Street in London. He has 311,000 followers on Twitter.

His initial tweet on 23 December was retweeted more than 500 times, as well as prompting a thread of discussion described in court as "pretty unpleasant", before it was deleted.

Mr Ringland said: "We are talking about huge publication in this case."

Mr Justice McAlinden said he will produce a written judgment on the matter.

"Obviously I am going to have to reserve my decision in this case and given a written judgment," he said.

"I will try to get that dealt with as quickly as possible because I think that this has been hanging over Mrs Foster for long enough and the defendant's approach to this matter has extended the time during which it is hanging over her head, so I will attempt to deal with this matter as a matter of urgency, but it will take some time to ensure that I deal with it properly.

"I will give a written decision as soon as possible."

Foster upset by homophobic reference

Ms Foster said she gets "very distressed" when she is referred to as homophobic.

The tweet by Dr Jessen, on 23 December 2019, referred to Ms Foster as "the sanctity of marriage preaching woman", adding: "It always comes back to bite them on the arse in the end."

The DUP had in the past opposed attempts to allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

It was extended to the region following legislation at Westminster while Stormont was suspended.

The DUP opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, arguing that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that civil partnerships were already available to same-sex couples.

Ms Foster was asked during proceedings if she took the "traditional view of marriage" that it is a union between a man and a woman.

"Yes, I take the traditional view, the church-based view, yes," she responded.

Asked if she was homophobic, Ms Foster responded "no".

Mr Justice McAlinden said there is a "big difference between holding strong religious views about the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman and having an irrational hatred of homosexuals".

Ms Foster agreed: "There is, absolutely.

"I get very distressed when people do actually call me a homophobe because that's something I am not.

"I do think, unfortunately, in politics sometimes, if you take a nuanced position on one issue it becomes a much wider piece, and that's unfortunately the case - if you cannot explain it in 140 characters in today's society then it must be true - it is simply not true.

"I have many friends who are homosexual, they know my views on same-sex marriage, and in any event, same-sex marriage is now the law here in Northern Ireland and has to be upheld.

"I have never in my own political utterances said anything in connection with people who are homosexual and that's why I do get quite upset when people call me a homophobe."