We profile the new Health Minister, DUP man Jim Wells
No sooner had he been appointed Health Minister this week than Twitter users claimed Jim Wells had blocked them for questioning his views on abortion. That's typical of the hardline, but surprisingly charming, DUP man, says Alex Kane.
For someone whose profile had actually been pretty low for the past couple of years Jim Wells' appointment as Health Minister has certainly attracted a lot of attention – most of it negative.
Within hours of the announcement that he was replacing Edwin Poots, hundreds of Twitter users reported that they had been blocked after they had attempted to follow or interact with him. Indeed "blocked-by-wells" became like a hashtag badge of honour for those who had tried to question him about his views on gay marriage, abortion and creationism.
Right-to-choose campaigners have also condemned Wells's promotion. "The appointment of a Health Minister in Northern Ireland with such hard-line views on abortion underlines just how far women here still have to go before they achieve equality with women in the rest of the UK," Amnesty International's Patrick Corrigan told Cosmopolitan.
Yet it probably wouldn't have mattered which DUP MLA had been given the job because the DUP tends to sing from the same song sheet on these socio-moral issues. Realistically, when it comes to abortion, it's unlikely that a UUP or SDLP minister would do anything to change abortion legislation either.
Wells often confuses people. Many who are appalled by his views on homosexuality, abortion and young earth creationism admit that they "like him enormously as a person". Or, as one very senior civil servant put it: "Jim may be very typical of the DUP's core membership, but he manages not to sound it for most of the time."
Yet back in November 2012 he faced an Assembly motion calling for his exclusion for a week after describing Mary McArdle (a former special advisor to Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuillin) as "a monster". And for many months following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985, he could often been seen heckling and dogging the footsteps of Secretary of State Tom King.
The curious thing about Wells is that he has been involved in politics since the late 1970s – he was a former member of the 1982-86 Assembly – and yet it has taken an enormously long time for him to achieve high office. This has fuelled the view in some quarters that he isn't fully accepted or acknowledged as 'one of our own'. Or, as a DUP Assembly colleague says: "There's always been a slight air of detachment between Jim and the inner circle."
Some party insiders have even suggested that he would not have made it to the Executive earlier this week had it not been for "Peter's need to be seen to take Poots down a peg or two because of his behaviour over the summer". It's worth bearing in mind, too, that Wells had been named by Peter Robinson as Poots' successor in 2011; but even a few weeks ago it looked as though the reshuffle would never take place.
James Henry Wells was born in Lurgan on April 27, 1957. His father was a farmer and his mother a teacher. He has three brothers and one sister. His childhood memories are very happy ones of playing around the farm with his dog. Although he says that his parents weren't involved in politics, or even particularly political, he remembers the assassination of John Kennedy in November 1963 as his first "vivid memory of a world event".
He attended Moira Primary, Kings Park Primary, Lurgan College and Queen's University, where he gained a degree in geography and a postgraduate diploma in town and country planning. It was at QUB that he took his first step into politics.
"The DUP for me was a natural choice as the political party most able to articulate the concerns of ordinary people from the unionist community like myself.
"The party was not only able to take a strong stand against terrorism, but also contained those who had a long-term vision and a strategy for Northern Ireland."
At that period, in the mid to late 1970s, QUB Student Union politics was often a battle-a-day between republican and unionist parties. It wasn't a place for the faint-hearted and nor was it a place for the middle ground.
Public meetings attracted audiences of hundreds and the Students' Representative Council usually descended into slanging matches over local politics rather than student grants and welfare issues.
It was in this environment that Wells, along with fellow students like Diane Dodds, cut his political teeth.
During Wells' university days the DUP was still a young party and very much the "distant relation" of the UUP within the broader unionist family. But its less genteel, more confrontational approach to republicanism appealed to a new generation of educated, articulate unionist students like him who regarded the Queen's wing of unionism as "too soft, too accommodating, too willing to stand in the background".
He was also regarded as a rising star of the party at that time and went straight from Queen's to the new NI Assembly in October 1982 (the 'rolling devolution' election) as a member for South Down – elected on the final count.
While the Assembly didn't do much (the SDLP and Sinn Fein had fought on an abstentionist policy and the UUP was still going through its integrationist phase and not particularly committed to the place) Wells did establish a reputation as both hardworking and genial: and, at a time when many in the DUP sounded extreme, his voice was rarely heard above the political din.
But when that Assembly was closed in 1986 – although it effectively died the day the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed – Wells had to find employment elsewhere. He worked for the National Trust, firstly as manager of the Giant's Causeway and then as head of fundraising, membership and legacies. He also married during this period and he and his wife Grace, a teacher, have two daughters and a son – none of whom is politically active.
Wells' faith – he's a Baptist – –is one of the bedrocks of his life. "A religious faith that doesn't play a major part of your life isn't a faith worth having," he said. And it's here, of course, that we come to the territory that most concerns his critics. They argue that DUP ministers, more so than ministers from any other party, allow personal faith to determine departmental policy. That's not actually the real source of the problem, though, which is that the Executive has no structure of collective responsibility or collective accountability. Ministers run their departments like silos and their personal opinions – be it about education, social housing, out-of-town planning or moral issues et al – will steer policy in a way that would never happen if there was a collectively agreed Programme for Government in which compromise was required.
When pressed on the subject, Wells has said: "Anyone with a religious faith will obviously be shaped by that faith. But all of my decisions will be taken in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland."
I suspect a lot of people won't be comfortable with those decisions, but for so long as he has the support of his party and a structure that doesn't encourage collective responsibility, there's not much they can do about it. And, as he notes: "It is unfortunate that some of those who profess to be the most liberal appear to be amongst the most intolerant of anyone who happens to hold a religious belief".
Away from politics his great passions are birds and hill walking, and he's also "one of probably a very small number of Coventry City fans in Northern Ireland". Surprisingly, perhaps, for someone who places himself on the centre right, one of his political heroes is the Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi: "I admire her resolute spirit in the face of adversity."
On broader political problems he argues, "no one, however sceptical about Sinn Fein, would have predicted it would be welfare reform and budgets that would place the greatest strain on devolution, rather than terrorist violence".
That strain could yet result in an early election and the ending of a ministerial career before it has even started. That would be a pity. It has taken so long for him to get to the top of the ladder that it would be interesting to see how he handles the role, challenges and criticism.
Follow Alex Kane on Twitter @AlexKane221b
In his own words
Referring to victims of sexual assault during a debate on The Nolan Show about abortion in Northern Ireland
"That is a tragic and difficult situation but should the ultimate victim of that terrible act - which is the unborn child - should he or she also be punished for what has happened by having their life terminated? No."
After the Assembly voted not to discipline him over confrontations he had with Caral Ni Chuilin, the Sinn Fein Culture Minister, and her former adviser Mary McArdle
"Mary McArdle would not have been appointed to her £60,000 a year salary had she not murdered Mary Travers, because the reason that they (she and Ms Ni Chuilin) knew each other so well was that they shared a cell together."
After it was revealed that female prisoners in Northern Ireland are being trained in beauty therapy
"I’d be concerned if taxpayers' money was being spent on making prisoners look like Twiggy.”
Following the recent death of former First Minister Ian Paisley
"He often joked that he had a day's work done before most men were out of their bed, and I can confirm that that is true. He never seemed to sleep."