Mixed reactions in DUP as Jim Wells gets nod to stand in South Down
Former Health Minister Jim Wells has been selected by the DUP to stand in the Assembly election, it can be revealed.
The controversial MLA's formal endorsement at the party's spring conference ends a growing stand-off between his constituency association and the party leadership.
Mr Wells had fallen foul of party officers after being accused of failing to follow internal rules, including on dealing with the media.
And, as the Belfast Telegraph revealed last week, when candidates were summoned for official photograph sessions for election posters Mr Wells was not among them. Mr Wells was making no comment on the latest turn of events last night. But a party spokesman confirmed: "Jim is selected for South Down. The party will be announcing its full candidate list this week."
The delay in the selection process had sparked speculation that Mr Wells might run against the party as an independent, threatening to split an already-squeezed unionist vote in a closely-fought constituency.
It is understood that up to six members of the DUP's senior party officer team - including chairman Lord Morrow and deputy leader Nigel Dodds - interviewed Mr Wells and there were "fiery exchanges".
Mr Wells and the DUP's press spokesman both refused to comment on the meeting. But it's believed that much of the discussion centred on remarks about same-sex marriage made by Mr Wells at an election hustings event in Downpatrick last April.
Following a recording of his comments - which he stated were doctored - he resigned as Health Minister and later began a campaign to clear his name.
The DPP announced in October that he would not be prosecuted over the comments.
Nonetheless one party source told the Belfast Telegraph: "Some at the top of the party don't believe Jim is an appropriate candidate following that controversy.
"It has damaged him greatly. This is not a question of electability. Everyone knows that if he gets the nomination he would easily be re-elected. People in South Down are very supportive of him, but he doesn't have the support of the party officers."
A source in the constituency association told the Down Recorder newspaper, however, that contact had been made with party leader Arlene Foster in an attempt to ensure Mr Wells got the nomination.
"Jim Wells is the only candidate as far as we are concerned. As far as we are aware, the meeting (with party officers) was in fact cordial," the source said.
"No one else has put their name forward and Jim has our unanimous backing. He is the best man for the job."
Mr Wells sparked controversy recently over remarks about women before a Stormont committee meeting, but was exonerated. Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain said the comments did not amount to sex discrimination and did not breach the Assembly code of conduct.
The Assembly's standards committee also rejected a complaint against Mr Wells over confronting Sinn Fein MLA Megan Fearon over the remarks.
Mr Wells was recorded telling Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey that a woman civil servant who had walked through the room had scared him "out of his wits", reminding him of Arlene Foster, and went on to say that "she wouldn't take prisoners".
Then he quipped: "I'm brilliant with women under the age of eight and great with those over the age of 80 - it's the ones in between I can't cope with, between eight to 80."
Mr Bain said it was not possible to judge whether the comments represent Mr Wells' actual view of his ability or "were jocular in nature".