Disastrous timing of comments forced Jim Wells out

Analysis: From the moment the comments emerged the DUP knew it faced electoral damage

DUP politician Jim Wells who has quit days after he sparked controversy with comments about gay marriage. Photograph: PA

DUP politician Jim Wells who has quit days after he sparked controversy with comments about gay marriage. Photograph: PA


Politics is often about timing and the timing for the Democratic Unionist Party and Jim Wells was disastrous, which resulted in his having to stand down from the ministerial post he coveted and loved.

And on the very day of his 58th birthday; some timing there Wells must be musing.

In other circumstances the DUP, Peter Robinson and Wells might have dug in, majored on how the Minister of Health was under personal pressure due to his wife’s illness, that he had apologised for his comments, and that the DUP was emphatic that these comments were not the views of the party, nor indeed of Wells.

But right from when this story broke on Thursday night Robinson and his close aides knew this was serious, that it could damage the DUP’s prospects in some marginal seats in the Westminster election.

And how the party fares in this election could have implications for Robinson’s position as DUP leader and First Minister. The stakes are high.

At party headquarters there was a tearing out of hair when they heard what Wells had said at the South Down hustings: “The facts show that certainly you don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship, that a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected....”

Wells and the party strove mightily to retrieve the situation. He apologised. There were references to his wife Grace who has been hospitalised for about three months after suffering two strokes. The story was that he was under such pressure he just wasn’t thinking straight and garbled what he wanted to say.

There was also a Sunday Life report that he has just been diagnosed with narcolepsy. For a period there was a chance that Wells might emerge wounded but still in command of his health portfolio.

But DUP opponents scented blood and went on a full-frontal attack against this anti-blood sports politician, realising that for once the party was vulnerable.

The PSNI was asked to investigate a complaint about his comment at the hustings. Then it just got worse when on Sunday night the PSNI further confirmed it was investigating three complaints relating to a canvass Wells made in Rathfriland in South Down where he is standing as a Westminster candidate.

A lesbian couple, one of them a DUP supporter (but no longer), alleged that Wells was critical of their lifestyle. When Wells later heard on canvass that this had upset the couple he is understood to have gone back to the house on two occasions to apologise but that neither woman wanted anything to do with him.

Police said they were making inquiries because they are obliged to follow-up all complaints.

And all this against the backdrop of a debate in the Assembly today on a Sinn Fein motion to have same sex marriage legalised - the fourth time such a motion has been tabled in the past two-and-a-half years, the three previous motions being defeated.

Easy to guess the main line of attack if the DUP was still standing by health Minister Wells; that in effect it was the party standing by the linkage of same sex parents to child abuse.

The DUP came first and Wells had to go, it was as simple as that.

There is well over a week to go to polling day on Thursday May 7th and perhaps the political tumult will have died down by then, but this still could prove costly for the DUP.

The party’s core vote won’t be damaged but the DUP is also trying to create a broader base for itself by appealing to more moderate unionists.

These are the people who if they could be persuaded to turn out could help, say, Gavin Robinson regain East Belfast for the DUP from Alliance’s Naomi Long, or junior Minister Jonathan Bell cause a surprise in South Belfast where SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell is the outgoing MP.

In South Antrim and Upper Bann the outgoing DUP MPs David Simpson and the Rev William McCrea also face real challenges. Even in North Belfast there is no guarantee that deputy leader Nigel Dodds is safe against Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, notwithstanding that Ulster Unionists have stood aside in this constituency to facilitate Dodds.

This controversy has the potential to turn away centrist unionists who were considering voting DUP and galvanise republicans and nationalists to try to get certain DUP MPs out of office.

Moreover, all this is playing poorly across the water where in the event of a hung parliament the DUP hopes to be wielding considerable influence after May 7th.

Both prospective prime ministers David Cameron and Ed Miliband are under pressure to have nothing to do with the DUP because of its position on gay issues.

As stated matters may be calmer by Thursday week but it is a worrying time for Robinson and his party.

And all because of one man.

A failure to retake East Belfast or even one lost seat could embolden his internal opponents to seek to oust Robinson.

There is some sympathy for Wells because of his wife’s illness. But more coldly some have said that if he couldn’t handle the domestic pressures then he shouldn’t have taken on the ministry in the first place.

Sinn Féin in particular will take quiet delight in his fall as they characterise him as one of the DUP politicians who still refuses to speak to Sinn Féin politicians or even acknowledge their presence.

Wells is fairly typical of the DUP in that he is a Protestant fundamentalist, opposes same sex marriage and the 1967 abortion act being applied in Northern Ireland. He has also been criticised for continuing to oppose the ban on gay men donating blood.

Otherwise he doesn’t quite fit the bill in that he is a vegetarian, an environmentalist, a former British National Trust worker, is firmly opposed to blood sports, loves animals and is a very knowledgeable ornithologist. To his great regret he will now have much more time for birdwatching.