No-one expected the uproar that followed

No-one expected the uproar that followed

29 April 2015

THERE was neither eye contact nor exchange between the area’s seven Westminster candidates as they milled about the St. Patrick Centre lobby on Thursday evening.

Each MP candidate was in a huddle of supporters as they waited to be called into the gallery for the commencement of a hustings event hosted by the Down Recorder. It was difficult to tell if the atmosphere was one of focus or tension. However, there was no hint of the controversy to come.

With seats taken and notes nervously straightened, the debate got quickly underway.

It was a gentle start as candidates united to express support for the Downe Hospital when quizzed about its future.

The second question, about job creation for young people, was debated in similarly good temper. As was the next question at first. The question about equal marriage.

For although the Unionist candidates, led by UKIP’s Henry Reilly, spoke unequivocally about their opposition to gay marriage, they did so in an even manner. 

“I am sorry that offends you,” said Mr Reilly, while the UUP’s good-natured Harold McKee puzzled the audience by asking how many thought they would exist if gay marriage had been commonplace 20 or 30 years ago.

The first inkling of the trouble ahead only arose when the DUP’s Jim Wells shouted “shame” as Conservative candidate Felicity Buchan spoke in favour of gay marriage.

As Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard and Alliance’s Martyn Todd expressed their own support for the same-sex institution, the clock had begun to tick on the Health Minister’s career.

“The demands of the gay lobby are insatiable,” he shouted.

“The facts show that you don’t bring up a child in a homosexual relationship. That a child is far more likely to be abused or neglected [uproar] I say again, I say again, a child is far more JLKJlikely to be abused or neglected in a non stable marriage environment, gay or straight.”

Within minutes political bloggers in the auditorium had spread the word.

“Jim_Wells_MLA says children brought up in a homosexual home are far more likely to be abused,” the first tweet went out.

The eye-catching, albeit exaggerated tweet, sparked an online storm as the first calls for Mr Wells’ resignation were made.

As the DUP press office worked furiously overnight to assess what had actually been said, Mr Wells defended himself as being misquoted.

It all came down to semantics.

Depending on punctuation, some read it as: “You don’t bring up a child in a homosexual relationship, that child is far more likely to be abused or neglected.” 

But in the end the placing, or misplacing, of one full stop and one capital letter became irrelevant. 

For what was without doubt was that Northern Ireland’s Health Minister had expressed a clear distaste for homosexuality. And that was unministerial enough.

For just as Mr. Wells looked like he might have survived the hustings homophobic controversy, with his acceptance that he had caused offence, he found himself in deeper waters after calling to the home of a lesbian couple in Rathfriland.

With claims that he had criticised their lifestyle, followed by a report to police, Mr Wells finally conceded his position was untenable.

As his own twitter-feed continues to be flooded with abusive messages, most too graphic to print, the outgoing Health Minister is partly chastened by a “very painful lesson”.

On the other hand, he maintains not only his unwavering opposition to gay marriage, but also a feeling his words have been distorted.

“I believe I have been pilloried for something I did not actually say,” he said.