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'Sinn Fein not welcome in unionist town' - backlash over tweet by DUP's Jim Wells

Backlash over DUP man's 'not welcome' Sinn Fein post

By Michael Sheils McNamee

A prominent DUP politician is at the centre of a political storm after he tweeted that Sinn Fein shouldn't campaign in a Co Down town.

Former Stormont minister Jim Wells sparked outrage on social media yesterday by saying that Sinn Fein was “not welcome” in Rathfriland, which lies within his constituency.

The controversial tweet posted yesterday read: “Many complaints about Sinn Fein canvassing in Rathfriland yesterday.

“They are not welcome in a unionist town.”

The DUP later admitted that “all parties have a right to canvass for votes” — but called into question the republican party’s decision to campaign on the Sabbath.

“We recognise that many people value the special nature of Sunday and do not wish to have this intruded upon by political canvassers from any party,” the party statement said.

The DUP has a policy of not canvassing on a Sunday.

Mr Wells, whose Twitter account is private, deleted the tweet a short time after it was posted.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Mr Wells said he had “no comment” to make when asked about the tweet.

“The main role of the press is to set bear traps for politicians and I have no intention of falling into them. No comment,” he added.

After the tweet had been deleted by Mr Wells a screen grab of it was shared widely, with one user saying the tweet was “undemocratic”.

Another Twitter user wrote “you’re in the ‘Democratic’ Unionist Party... it’s their democratic right to canvass wherever they want to”.

Kevin Savage, a Sinn Fein councillor for Rathfriland, said that as far as he was aware the Sunday canvass had been “normal” and that he was “flabbergasted”.

“This is part of the democratic process,” he said. “Give everyone an opportunity to have their say on the doorstep, for people to disagree with us is fine.

“I think that Jim should maybe apologise and maybe reflect on his tweet, he is a member of the DUP and part of democracy is entertaining different voices.”

Mr Savage added that in his experience unionist households in the area “do disagree with you, but they are always courteous”.

The DUP candidate in South Down is Diane Forsythe, while Chris Hazzard is standing for Sinn Fein.

Mr Hazzard said Sinn Fein had felt welcome in Rathfriland, which has a Catholic population of almost 40%

“Our message of equality, rights and Irish unity was well received during our canvas yesterday in Rathfriland,” he said.

“Sinn Fein will not be deterred by Jim Wells or anyone else from bringing that message to the electorate of South Down.”

Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP will be attempting to hold the South Down seat.

The other candidates are Harold McKee (UUP) and Andrew McMurray (Alliance).

It’s not the first time Mr Wells has been caught up in canvassing controversies.

In 2015, a woman complained to police about alleged comments made by then health minister Mr Wells to a lesbian woman in Rathfriland.

The PSNI investigated and concluded there was no basis for a prosecution of Mr Wells.

But last year, a woman was given three months’ jail after she maliciously lied to police by claiming Mr Wells had made homophobic remarks.

The sentence handed to Dorothy Gardner, originally from Dungannon, sentence was reduced on appeal to a combination of probation and community service.

She also made a public and personal apology to Mr Wells from the dock before a judge reduced the jail on appeal to community service.

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