DUP backs Wells over abuse comments
The Democratic Unionists are standing by their under-pressure Health Minister amid mounting calls for him to resign over controversial remarks about gay marriage and child abuse.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has added his voice to those insisting Jim Wells' position as a Northern Ireland Executive minister is no longer tenable after he suggested a child was at more risk of abuse if brought up in a homosexual relationship.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the furore was an indication of the "truly backward-looking views from the DUP", but he would not rule out governing alongside the party after the general election.
The nationalist SDLP are to table a motion of no confidence in the minister at Stormont.
Police are also investigating a complaint lodged about the comments made by the South Down MLA at an election husting event in Co Down last night.
Mr Wells this morning apologised for his remarks.
DUP leader Peter Robinson said his party colleague knew his comments were wrong and urged people to "give him a break", highlighting the stress he had been under due to his wife being in hospital.
But Mr McGuinness said it was time for him to resign.
The DUP's stance on LGBT issues, such as its opposition to gay marriage, has been subject to greater scrutiny beyond Northern Ireland during the election campaign, given the party's potentially important role in the event of a hung parliament.
"Jim Wells' attack on the LGBT community was reprehensible and completely unacceptable from someone holding the position of health minister," said Mr McGuinness.
"I accept that he is under pressure as a result of his wife's serious illness and I acknowledge that he has apologised."
However, the Sinn Fein veteran claimed the apology "rang hollow" when judged against the DUP's track record on LGBT issues.
"His position as health minister is clearly no longer tenable and the DUP leadership should now reflect on that," he added.
But Mr Robinson said he stood by his minister and urged people to consider the personal pressures he was under.
"I think anybody who looks at the comments will recognise that on a better day Jim would never have made such a comment," he said.
"I think everybody knows the pressure he has been under the last couple of months with his wife being ill in hospital and trying to keep going a very significant department in the Executive."
Mr Robinson added: "He has put out a very sincere and fulsome apology and I think people should give him a break because of the very special circumstances.
"He very rightly says it is neither his view or is it the Democratic Unionist Party's view. I again reiterate that today. That is not our view and nor will it ever be our view."
Mr Wells' wife Grace has been in hospital for around three months after suffering two strokes.
The devout Christian politician, who is standing for election in the Westminster poll, said he regretted the offence he caused at the husting event in Downpatrick.
"I have listened to a recording of the relevant part of the debate," he said.
"I accept that one line of what I said caused offence and deep concern amongst members of the audience and beyond. I regret having wrongly made that remark about abuse and I'm sorry those words were uttered. The comment did not reflect my view nor that of my party."
The Stormont Health Minister said he was not fully focused on the debate.
"The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for me personally," he said.
"I had just come from a hospital visit and my focus was not on the debate. Indeed, during the event I received several messages from the hospital."
He added: "Within seconds of realising this error, I asked the chairman to let me back in and twice corrected my remarks before the debate moved on. This clarification has been confirmed by the journalists present at the event. Partial clips, spin and selective reporting regrettably miss this.
"The neglect or abuse of children is awful and happens in unstable relationships whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. I make no distinction between anyone who neglects or abuses a child, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"I trust people will accept my explanation and my apology."
In the short video clip of last night's event, Mr Wells said that "facts show you certainly don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship".
In the footage, he continued his point by claiming children were more likely to be abused or neglected in "non-stable" marriages.
At one point his remarks are drowned out by angry shouts from the audience.
Gay marriage is a divisive issue in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly has rejected three attempts to legalise it and the proposal is again set to go to the floor of Parliament Buildings on Monday.
DUP members have consistently voted against legalisation and have used a contentious Stormont voting mechanism to essentially block it.
This week Prime Minister David Cameron, when challenged on the possible need to rely on DUP votes in Westminster, said he would "never validate" the party's stance on LGBT issues.
Mr Cameron said he "profoundly disagreed" with those DUP policies.
Today, Mr Clegg said: "I think these comments have lifted the lid on some really unpleasant views, the mask has slipped."
But, speaking at a campaign event in the Sheffield Hallam seat he hopes to retain on May 7, Mr Clegg sidestepped questions on whether he would rule out relying on the support of the DUP in government.
"I'm not seeking alliances with the DUP," he said. "The Conservative Party, or significant parts of it, are actively seeking alliances with people who have these regressive, backward-looking views."
SDLP Assembly member Colum Eastwood, whose party has tabled the motion of no confidence, said: "Not satisfied with his already robust opposition to equality for those who define as LGBT, Mr Wells has gone far beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour.
"To suggest that children raised by gay parents are more likely to be abused is a baseless slur on an entire community."
Alliance leader David Ford said a resignation would be meaningless without a "sea change" in attitudes within the DUP.
"If this had been a minister from a party in any other part of the UK, even from the so-called more extreme wings, they would have already resigned," he said.
"Yet Peter Robinson has defended Mr Wells. That raises serious questions.
"However, one minister's resignation will mean nothing if he is replaced by someone with the same values. The DUP need to take a long look at their policies and attitudes, and question them deeply."
During questioning from young voters on BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat, Labour leader Ed Miliband was urged to put pressure on Stormont to improve the handling of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights in Northern Ireland.
Mr Miliband responded: "One of the things about devolved government is that decisions are taken in Northern Ireland ...The whole point of devolution is that these decisions are made by devolved government.
"I will keep making the case for LGBT rights across the UK, including in Northern Ireland. In the end though, it is a matter for politicians in Northern Ireland to make the decisions."
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: " If Jim Wells had made these comments about black or Jewish parents he would have been forced to resign. I don't see how he can remain as health minister. If he won't stand down he should be sacked.
"Jim's apology does not alter the fact that he and the DUP have a long history of supporting legal discrimination against gay people and voting against gay equality.
"They oppose gay adoption, same-sex marriage, gay blood donors and support the right of religious organisations to discriminate against gay people. The BNP is the only other UK political party to support such homophobic policies.
"David Cameron must make it clear that there will be no post-election deal with DUP while they maintain their support for anti-gay discrimination. Any Tory deal with the DUP will revive concerns that the Conservatives have not fully broken with their 'nasty party' past."