OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper is dismissing security concerns over the relationship between a top cabinet minister and an ex-girlfriend with past ties to the Hells Angels.

The opposition wants to know whether Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's relationship with Julie Couillard was a security risk. But Harper brushed off the matter Thursday, and instead accused the opposition of being "gossipy old busybodies."

He said Bernier's relationships are a private matter and nobody's business.

Couillard, 38, accompanied Bernier to a cabinet swearing-in ceremony and to his speech at the United Nations General Assembly. His office says they recently broke up.

Couillard was linked romantically to Gilles Giguere, an associate of Hells Angels boss Maurice (Mom) Boucher, and was once married to Stephane Sirois, a member of the Rockers biker gang.

Giguere was murdered and a report in the Globe and Mail cited court documents in which a biker-turned-informant said the gang had also considered killing Couillard during the 1990s Quebec biker wars.

Still, the government - and Bernier - cast aside questions about the security risk and his judgment in the House of Commons on Thursday.

"Never did I think I'd get such a nasty and low attack from an opposition party," Bernier said in response to deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

"This concerns my private life, the private life in the past of my former girlfriend, and the private lives of people are none of your business."

Ignatieff shot back: "Questions about ministerial judgment and national security are not a private matter; they are everyone's business."

Speaker Peter Milliken weighed in after the Conservatives turned back repeated questions on the matter and government House leader Peter Van Loan called the entire line of questioning "indecent."

"These questions, in my view, are in order," said Milliken. "Questions about national security are legitimate questions."

Couillard dismissed the controversy as politically motivated. She told the Globe that Sirois' testimony about her being a Hells Angels target was not credible.

"Some people are after Maxime Bernier and its my name that'll be dragged in the mud," she said, refusing to comment further.

The controversy has raised questions about the process of background checks for people closely associated with cabinet ministers.

A spokeswoman for the Privy Council Office, which is in charge of background checks, told the Globe that security checks are conducted only on prospective cabinet ministers, not on their spouses or immediate family.

The public first learned about Bernier's relationship with Couillard in August 2007, when the couple, holding hands, walked into Rideau Hall where Bernier was sworn in as minister of foreign affairs.

The Globe reported that, according to 2003 court testimony, Boucher was suspicious that Couillard had convinced her boyfriend, Giguere, to work with police.

The information is based on the testimony of one of Couillard's former partners, who in 2003 claimed that Giguere was known as the right-hand man of Bob Savard, closely linked to Boucher.

The reports says Giguere was killed in 1996 and a year later Couillard married Sirois. After their divorce in 1999, Sirois worked undercover for the police, testifying in court in 2003 about several of his associates, said the Globe.

The newspaper added that Sirois testified that Boucher had told him that at one point the suspicions against Couillard were so high that there was a contract on her and that "she was going to get it."

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