Jim Wells: I was hung out to dry over something I didn't say. Now I want to restore my reputation
Jim Wells has launched a dramatic bid to clear his name after he was accused of making anti-gay remarks which led to his resignation as Health Minister.
The senior DUP man claims police analysis shows a recording of his comments was "doctored" and gave a misleading impression.
In an emotional and wide-ranging interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Wells now claims he resigned over remarks that he never made.
And he believes the PSNI will not recommend charges against him over the comments which lead to a national political storm and destroyed his career.
Both his political and his personal life have been in turmoil since.
Mr Wells said his whole world fell apart when his wife Grace suffered two strokes over a period of weeks.
But now the veteran politician is fighting back.
After a police interview last week, he claims a recording at a public hustings event was "doctored" on a tape which was then sent out on social media.
"The full transcript shows that I did say I was opposed to gay marriage, which I am, but then I go on to make the argument that when marriages break up - in either a heterosexual or homosexual relationship - the children can be used in a very nasty and vicious way," Mr Wells told the Belfast Telegraph.
"I have seen this myself repeatedly, in heterosexual marriages, where the children become bargaining chips, and are used in a nasty way."
The South Down MLA said he had been told by police that they accept he did not make the homophobic remarks which lead to his resignation in April.
"Police have analysed the tape and confirmed to me that it was contrived.
"For me it was a 'lightbulb' moment. I had always doubted that I could say something that I don't actually believe."
At the event Mr Wells said: "All evidence throughout the world says the best way to raise children is in a loving, stable, married relationship; the facts show that, the facts show that certainly you don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship."
Against an audience in uproar, he then immediately goes on: "I say again, I say again, a child is far more likely to be abused or neglected in a non-stable marriage situation, gay or straight."
The South Down MLA argued his remarks overall made clear he was talking about unstable relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual - and were not directed specifically at the gay community.
"Essentially I resigned over remarks which it now turns out I did not say.
"My whole career in politics over 33 years came crashing down in 17 seconds.
"As Health Minister, I thought I might achieve something. I thought, well finally I have something to put on my tombstone. And I felt I was beginning to come to terms with the job. But it all came tumbling down."
The remarks at the meeting in Downpatrick became national news within hours, at a time when the DUP were considered to be in pole position to play a leading role as 'kingmakers' for the incoming Government.
"I told myself, not only do I not believe what I am said to have said but I don't honestly think I said it.
"But then at about three o'clock in the morning, my party Press office played me the tape which was on social media and I began to think: 'Well, maybe I did say it'. How could I be so daft?
"I would not be into technology so it never occurred to me that this could be doctored. To me it was like 'the camera never lies'. It was on tape, so I must have said it. But I did not believe it myself and that is why I had no qualms about apologising."
At that stage, despite a storm of protest, the party appeared to be attempting to rally around their minister but support faded when he was involved in a public row with a lesbian couple on their doorstep in Rathfriland.
It was after this incident that he sought a meeting with party leader Peter Robinson - and told the First Minister he wanted to resign.
"The situation was deteriorating rapidly, but I was not forced to resign. In fact Peter felt I should still stay on, but the truth is I just did not have the strength to face the situation.
"I believed I would have had to stand down because of Grace's health in any case, maybe a few weeks later."
Mr Wells accepts there is no way back for him to the party's top team, and he may even stand down as a DUP MLA before the next Assembly election, depending on Grace's health. He said his world came crashing down when his wife fell ill in February - less than four months after his appointment.
But he also revealed he did not personally want to run as the DUP's Parliamentary candidate in the constituency, while also continuing to put in long hours as Health Minister, replacing Edwin Poots.
"If I am honest I would admit that I felt complimented that the party was saying I was a 'big name' and the only candidate who could bring in the votes," he said.
"With hindsight, I should have dug my heels in and said I did not want to run. I knew all along there was no way I could fight the election properly."
Yet he is in no way critical of the party leadership, or Mr Robinson. "In fact, Peter has been in constant contact with me, he has been very helpful and supportive throughout," said Mr Wells.
Mr Wells disclosed, however, he was personally hurt when he emailed a transcript of his complete remarks at the hustings, which was run in his local newspaper, the Down Recorder, to DUP MLAs and councillors and other members - and only four of them read it.
"Some of them were too busy, some of them are not very good with email but, even so, that hurt me deeply," he said. But he said a number of MLAs - George Robinson, Sydney Anderson, Gordon Dunne, Trevor Clarke, William Humphrey and the four Lagan Valley MLAs including Mr Poots - have been "absolutely brilliant to me and very helpful", adding: "But I could see the election campaign for the party had been going very well and there was the feeling the DUP could play a role if there was a hung Parliament, which everyone, the commentators and the polls, was saying was the most likely outcome. And then as people saw it, along comes this wing-nut Wells with these outrageous comments which put the whole election project into jeopardy with even [the then deputy Prime Minister] Nick Clegg going public with a statement." The then Liberal Democrat leader, who remains an MP, said the "mask had slipped" in relation to his Conservative coalition partners dallying with the DUP amidst the uncertainty of the election.
Wells admitted the two incidents in his own constituency discredited him and destroyed his career.
"I do find that people in South Down are sympathetic and understanding, but in the rest of the province my reputation is in tatters," he said. "That is why it is so important to me to try to get it back."
The PSNI, who interviewed Mr Wells last week following a number of complaints, confirmed they are sending a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
What he said...
A transcript of what the then Health Minister actually said during that public hustings event in Downpatrick on April 23
On gay marriage: “If you want gay marriage don’t vote for me. Under no circumstances will I ever support the
diminution of the traditional view of marriage.
“Marriage is a fundamental building block of society and you tamper with it at your peril. And all those who are now demanding gay marriage want to make life extremely difficult for those who have genuine concerns — Muslim, Jews, Evangelical Christian, or devout Roman Catholic who have real difficulties with that.”
On the gay lobby: “The demands of the gay lobby are insatiable, they simply do not know that we have gone as far as we can go in the form of civil partnerships.
“Marriage is between a man and a woman; marriage is for the procreation and bringing up of children. All evidence throughout the world says the best way to raise children is in a loving, stable, married relationship; the facts show that, the facts show that certainly you don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship.”
On abuse of children: “That a child is far more likely to be abused or neglected...(uproar in the audience drowns him out) I say again, I say again, a child is far more likely to be abused or neglected in a non stable marriage situation, gay or straight.
“I will be voting no on the 27 of April (gay marriage debate in the Assembly), I hope to be the first at the door to vote no. I feel very strongly about this and I feel the vast majority of ordinary decent people in south Down support me…
“The primary purpose of marriage and the reason why marriage is an institution is for the protection and the nurturing and the upbringing of children and all the evidence states that when that marriage breaks down, when marriage as a societal building block breaks down, children are more likely to be neglected, more likely to be cast aside and abused.
“The best way to bring up children is in a loving, secure, faithful married relationship; the evidence shows that is absolutely true.”
Appointed Health Minister replacing Edwin Poots
Grace Wells hospitalised after a stroke
Mrs Wells has a second stroke
Jim Wells selected to run for DUP in South Down
Hustings event in Downpatrick
Row with lesbian couple in Rathfriland
Wells resigns as Health Minister