Arlene Foster exerts her authority over Jim Wells selection in South Down
DUP leader Arlene Foster has thrown her support behind controversial Assembly Member Jim Wells after he was selected to run in the Stormont election.
The First Minister said she was "delighted that Jim will be my candidate in South Down and will be the DUP's standard bearer at this election".
While Mr Wells had the strong backing of his constituency association, senior party officers were reluctant to allow his name to go forward - sparking speculation that Mr Wells could run against the DUP as an independent.
Controversies over comments about women and same-sex marriage, as well as Assembly complaints against the 58-year-old, had led to a stand-off with the party's top brass. When the DUP's senior party officer team - including chairman Lord Morrow and deputy leader Nigel Dodds - interviewed Mr Wells at Stormont recently, sources said there were "fiery exchanges".
Mrs Foster's intervention will be seen as the new party leader stamping her authority on the dispute in a bid to end party divisions before the election campaign starts.
She said: "Jim Wells has a proven track record of delivering for the people of South Down and is one of the Assembly's most formidable performers. He has also been a loyal servant to the DUP over many decades and continues to make an important contribution to the party."
As well as becoming embroiled in controversy, Mr Wells has been coping with family illness.
His wife Grace suffered a stroke at the family home last year.
She subsequently suffered two more in hospital, and Mr Wells was warned she may not survive before she underwent surgery to repair a hole in her heart.
Mrs Foster said: "Jim has faced enormous difficulties and challenges and has come through them with great fortitude and resolution.
"Jim and his family remain in our prayers as he continues to care for his wife and family.
"Jim also faced unfounded allegations in relation to comments made during the general election last year which were presented in a completely misleading way. We are delighted that over recent months Jim has cleared his name and has been publicly vindicated."
If elected, Mr Wells previously claimed he would become the Father of the House, the title given to the longest serving member at Stormont.
Mrs Foster's backing for the former Health Minister came as the DUP announced its full list of candidates for the 2016 Assembly elections. It will run 44 candidates across all 18 constituencies here.
Among those on the list are Emma Pengelly in South Belfast.
The DUP junior minister and former special adviser was co-opted last year to take over the Assembly seat vacated by Jimmy Spratt, who stood down due to poor health.
The fast-track promotion was heavily criticised by DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, who had expected to stand in South Belfast.
Ms Patterson narrowly missed out on securing a second seat for the DUP in the constituency at the last Assembly election in 2011. She will now stand as an independent against Ms Pengelly.
Mrs Foster said: "I have a vision for Northern Ireland, but to implement that vision I need a strong DUP team in Stormont. If people want me to continue leading Northern Ireland, then they should vote for our candidates right across the country."
The 44 candidates
East Belfast: Joanne Bunting, Sammy Douglas, Robin Newton; North Belfast: Paula Bradley, William Humphrey, Nelson McCausland; South Belfast: Emma Pengelly, Christopher Stalford; West Belfast: Frank McCoubrey; East Antrim: David Hilditch, Gordon Lyons, Alastair Ross; North Antrim: Paul Frew, Phillip Logan, David McIlveen, Mervyn Storey; South Antrim: Pam Cameron, Trevor Clarke, Paul Girvan; North Down: Alex Easton, Gordon Dunne, Peter Weir; South Down: Jim Wells; Fermanagh & South Tyrone: Arlene Foster, Maurice Morrow; Foyle: Gary Middleton; Lagan Valley: Jonathan Craig, Paul Givan, Brenda Hale, Edwin Poots; East Londonderry: Maurice Bradley, Adrian McQuillan, George Robinson; Mid Ulster: Keith Buchanan, Ian McCrea; Newry & Armagh: William Irwin; Strangford: Jonathan Bell, Simon Hamilton, Harry Harvey, Michelle McIlveen; West Tyrone: Tom Buchanan, Allan Bresland; Upper Bann: Sydney Anderson, Carla Lockhart