Will Jim Wells run against the DUP in Assembly election? Controversial MLA is in standoff with his party
The DUP is engaged in an astonishing election stand-off with one of its most controversial and high profile MLAs.
Former Health Minister Jim Wells has the backing of the South Down constituency association to contest the Assembly election in May. But the party's top brass won't allow his name to go forward.
It has raised the possibility Mr Wells could run against the DUP as an independent in the poll.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that approved candidates were invited to a photoshoot at Stormont's Parliament Buildings last week, but Mr Wells was not asked to attend.
A party source revealed: "All the MLAs who are running again were called in to room 202 to have their photos taken by a professional photographer, but Jim was not amongst them."
The pictures will be used on leaflets and election posters.
It's understood that up to six members of the DUP's senior party officer team - including chairman Lord Morrow and DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds - interviewed Mr Wells at Stormont around three weeks ago.
Party sources say the meeting lasted for more than an hour and that there were "fiery exchanges".
Neither Mr Wells nor the DUP's press spokesman would 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 his post 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.
"Some at the top of the party don't believe Jim is an appropriate candidate following that controversy," said a party source.
"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."
If the DUP chooses not to ratify Mr Wells as a candidate, it's believed that he may run as an independent. His supporters are convinced that the support he enjoys in South Down may be enough to win him the seat, even without party backing.
But the DUP will be concerned a solo run by Mr Wells could split the unionist vote and allow another pro-union candidate - such as Ukip's Henry Reilly - to take the seat. When contacted, Mr Wells refused to comment on the selection delay and on rumours he may run as an independent, referring inquiries to the DUP press team.
A party spokesman confirmed that Mr Wells had been interviewed by senior party officers and that no decision had yet been taken on who would contest the South Down seat.
"Selection issues are internal party matters," said the spokesman. "Jim is not the only candidate to be interviewed."
It's understood senior members of the South Down constituency association have told DUP leader Arlene Foster that they are giving Mr Wells their backing and no other members are prepared to put their names forward for selection. A source said: "It's absolutely clear that the association wants him to run. They're all behind him in South Down."
The DUP spokesman said: "Jim has been through a tough time and there has been a big focus on him. The local view is always taken into account. Some people have said they won't stand in Jim's way."
In a Belfast Telegraph interview last October, Mr Wells (58) revealed how he struggled to cope with losing his Executive post in the wake of the hustings furore and spoke movingly about his wife, Grace, who suffered a stroke just over a year ago.
Grace - married to Mr Wells for more than 30 years - is cared for in a nursing home.
Earlier this month he again sparked controversy over remarks about women made at a Stormont committee.
He was heard telling a fellow MLA: "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."
Last week the Assembly Standards Commissioner Douglas Bain rejected a complaint about the comments from Alliance's Stewart Dickson, ruling that his words did not amount to sex discrimination and did not breach the Assembly's code of conduct.
Mr Wells has demanded an apology from Mr Dickson.