The most probing interviews: Jim Wells, North Down DUP on caring for his seriously ill wife, suffering depression, vegetarianism and his resignation as Health Minister.
Q. You’re 60 and have been married to Grace (59), a former teacher, for almost 35 years. Where did you meet?
A. At Queen’s on October 21, 1976. We were incredibly comfortable in each other’s company and had very similar backgrounds — both farmer’s children, Baptists, and from rural conservative backgrounds. We got married on July 26, 1983 and honeymooned in the Lake District.
Q. Grace requires round-the-clock care after suffering two mini-strokes and two serious strokes on February 1 and 16, 2015. How are you coping?
A. The second stroke was devastating. Life has changed utterly. I’m on my own now. I moved here (Banbridge) to be beside her; she’s in a care home. It’s been an awful three years.
Q. Do you feel very alone at home without her?
A. It can be desperately lonely. You get yourself into a routine of outings and visits, but every now and then it just hits you how bad it is. Everything revolves around Grace’s care. We like travelling and had Croatia and the Grand Canyon on our bucket list, but Grace will probably be in care for the rest of her life.
Q. You quit as Health Minister on April 27, 2015, after being falsely accused of linking child abuse to gay marriage. Remind us what happened to the culprit.
A. She [Dorothy Gardner] got three months in prison, suspended on appeal, for fabricating the story.
Q. As a one-time Health Minister, do you regret taking a case against a woman with terminal cancer?
A. Absolutely not. It totally vindicated me. My career had been destroyed by a totally false allegation. The transcript and video of the actual meeting proved I never said what was alleged.
Q. You were prescribed medication at the time. Were you depressed?
A. Yes, and I’m still on medication. I’d been on the crest of a wave. I remember driving home on February 2, 2015, everything was going so well... then, the following day, my life began to unravel. Grace had been found on the floor of the home. She’d been minding our grandson. I flew down the Stormont stairs, threw myself into the first car in the car pool saying ‘Get me to Craigavon Hospital immediately’ — only to find I’d hijacked Arlene Foster’s car. I had to get somebody to ring and tell her what had happened.
Q. How long did your depression last?
A. When it transpired that Grace was going to pull through, things got better. But I’ve only recently come to terms with the other situation — the false allegation. It was printed in 1,802 newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV and radio channels. People were phoning me from every corner of the world. I resigned, simply because the damage to the party would have been absolutely enormous otherwise. I had to resign.
Q. Were you forced to resign as minister?
A. No. I did so on the understanding that after the dust settled I’d return as Health Minister.
Q. Who did you speak to at the time?
A. Peter Robinson.
Q. And what did Mr Robinson say?
A. ‘Step down, let the heat die down’. In fact, I offered that. I said to him: ‘We can’t afford the risk to maybe one of our MPs losing their seat over this so I’ll step aside, take the flak, and when it’s all sorted I want to be vindicated by returning for a brief period as Health Minister and then resign from politics to look after Grace.’ But that never happened. Three times I asked for that to be redeemed. Twice (in writing) I was ignored — and, at a meeting with party officers, I was told ‘You’re not coming back’.
Q. Would things have been different had Peter still been DUP leader?
A. Part of their argument was that the promise was given by a previous leader and not the current one. I was very bitter, very angry. The worst point was in August 2016 when the woman who’d made the false allegation was sentenced. I pleaded with the leadership to put out a statement welcoming that; they refused.
Q. Why did they refuse?
A. When the transcript emerged that proved I didn’t say what was alleged, the party wouldn’t let me do an interview. I suspect they wanted rid of me because I’m old-fashioned, traditional DUP. I’m anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion. I would be conservative and maybe that’s not the new image the party wants.
Q. So how come you then stayed on?
A. Because there’s a huge contrast between the support I’ve had from the DUP generally and the total lack of support from party officers. There are four ‘majors’ in politics — MP, Member of Lords, Speaker and Minister and everybody wants to win a major. I won one, and it was plucked from me.
Q. What about your relationship Peter Robinson?
A. I’ve had no contact, apart from bumping into him once at a funeral.
Q. Do you think the DUP wants to modernise?
A. I think the DUP leadership feels that, but the DUP membership? Absolutely not.
Q. You’re known for your controversial views on abortion (should be illegal, even for rape) and gay rights (you support a ban on gay people giving blood). Are you still anti-gay or have you mellowed?
A. I’m not anti-gay. There’s nothing wrong with being gay. It’s the practice. I have Christian friends who accept that and don’t practice. But I’m very passionate about the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. All the evidence shows that the best model for bringing up children is in a loving monogamous, heterosexual marriage. In Northern Ireland we have anti-abortion legislation which has protected so many people who wouldn’t be here today if we’d adopted the 1967 Act which has led to abortion on demand elsewhere in the UK.
Q. You’re a teetotaller but say you understand why people are driven to drink. What did you mean by that?
A. I was sitting on my own in a restaurant on one of the dark days some time ago, and I noticed somebody drowning their sorrows. And, for the first time in my life, I actually understood why people did that. I don’t know whether I’ve got the alcoholism gene and the best way not to find out is not to touch it.
Q. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. In 100 years it won’t matter how much you earned or what your status was. What will matter is that you were important in the life of one child.
Q. You’re a member of Moira Baptist Church. Do you have a strong faith?
A. Grace and I attend Banbridge Baptist Church too. I have a strong faith. The set of circumstances that hit me in 2015 are not a random situation; there’s a plan there, but I don’t know what it is.
Q. How do you relax outside politics?
A. I’ve been a birdwatcher for 48 years. Nine years ago I did a piece on BBC about the persecution of peregrine falcons. A guy in the street told me: “You spoke a lot of sense, unlike that other Jim Wells, the bigot up at Stormont...”
Q. Which politician from another party do you most admire?
A. The SDLP’s Claire Hanna.
Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?
A. Brendan Dunlop. We go hillwalking and birdwatching together.
Q. You have two daughters — Laura (32) and Sharon (29), both teachers — and son Stuart (27), a film animator. You also have two grandchildren Josiah (four), Zak (one) and another on the way. Are you a doting grandad?
A. Sharon has a baby on the way. I was listening to its heartbeat on the iPhone. I’m completely besotted.
Q. Your dad Samuel Henry (‘Harry’) passed away from pneumonia last November, aged 94. He’d been married to your mum Doreen (85) for 61 years. Tell us about your siblings.
A. Geoffrey (60) took on our parents’ farm; retired policeman Arnold (58); Norma (54) worked for NI Water prior to retirement; and Adrian (39) works in food distribution. I was 21 when my mother told me they were expecting another baby. She was 46. When I wheeled him about in the pram, I had to explain to people that it was my brother, not my son.
Q. You grew up in Moira. A happy childhood?
A. I had a huge interest in wildlife and being born on a farm was helpful.
Q. You did a geography degree, then a post-grad in town and country planning at QUB. Briefly tell us about your career to date from graduating in 1981.
A. I went straight into politics. I went to a dinner where a friend, DUP councillor John Foster, told me they were looking for someone to stand for the party in Moira. I stood and got elected in May 1981. The following year I became an MLA for South Down, when I was 25. I was always interested in politics and the chance came very quickly. I was in the Assembly between 1982-86. I worked for the RSPB from 1986-89 and then the National Trust from 1989-98.
Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?
A. Ian Paisley. I hero-worshipped him.
Q. Any childhood traumas?
A. I wanted to be a vet until I came to the attention of a very brutal, sadistic teacher. He viciously assaulted me. He grabbed me by the throat and hurled me across the classroom and then threw me out the door. I believe that I was seen smirking. As he did this he said, ‘That’ll teach you to smirk at me’. I complained, but you just weren’t believed in those days. This man would haul people into the storeroom and give them an absolute hiding. We’d hear their screams. That was considered quite normal in 1970. I didn’t tell my parents. He would have done jail for it today.
Q. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
A. A constituent was drinking the mortgage money. She hadn’t told her husband and was facing eviction, she rang me and we went to the credit union. I was sitting in her front porch with the loan forms when word came that her husband was on his way home. I ran out the back and down the alley; he would have asked some very awkward questions.
Q. Tell us something that readers might be surprised to learn about you?
A. I’ve been a vegetarian for 32 years. And I don’t have a TV or the internet at home.
Q. What’s your favourite place in the whole world?
A. Australia — for its wildlife and cricket.
Q. What’s your favourite place in Northern Ireland?
A. I do guided boat trips around Rathlin Island. I’ve been going since 1974. For the first 15 years I signed myself in as ‘James Henry’ because of security issues. After year 16 the lady asked why I’d been using that name when they’d known who I was from day one.