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Jim Wells could stand as an independent in next election as row with DUP rumbles on

By Suzanne Breen

DUP MLA Jim Wells has said he may stand as an independent in the next Assembly election.

The veteran South Down representative believes he will face disciplinary action from the DUP for speaking out against what he sees as the increasing control that "unelected individuals" wield in the party.

Mr Wells is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the DUP hierarchy over events surrounding his resignation as Health Minister in 2015.

Yesterday he released an email which he said proved the DUP broke a promise by former leader Peter Robinson that he would eventually get his old job back.

The South Down MLA last night told the Belfast Telegraph: "It is very difficult to run as an independent in an election, but I am certainly not ruling it out."

Mr Wells said he did not expect the DUP to ratify him as a candidate for the next Assembly election, which is scheduled for May 2022.

"In terms of then standing as an independent, I will make my mind up closer to the time.

"I will of course check to see the level of support I have locally before I make any decision. In the meantime, I want to state that I am going nowhere," he said. "I have been a DUP member for 43 years. I have served as a councillor for 17 years and an MLA for a total of 24 years during my career. I have no intention of throwing my hands up and walking away."

Mr Wells said he had widespread backing in the party. "I have three MPs and over half the DUP MLA team sending me messages of support.

"A lot of people are fed up with the power that certain DUP employees and press officers wield in the party. These individuals hold influence way above their station. In speaking out against them, I have touched a chord with many other members in the ranks who are equally fed up," he said.

"It is wrong that people who never received a single vote in their lives exercise power far beyond that of elected representatives."

The South Down MLA said he had stood down as Health Minister in 2015 after he had been falsely accused of linking same-sex marriage to child abuse. His wife Grace was seriously ill at the time.

Mr Wells said he had fallen on his sword to protect the DUP ahead of the general election.

He produced an email that Peter Robinson (left) had sent to party official John Robinson. It said: "I made it clear to Jim that I thought he had done a good job and if Grace returned to health and he felt able to take up this (or for that matter another) post I would be happy to see him back in government.

"Obviously, publication of this would cause several problems, but I think you are aware that I felt Jim needed time to be with Grace and that we should see to it that no impediment was placed in his being able to return to office."

Last week Mr Robinson told the BBC he had not promised Mr Wells that he could have his old job back.

Mr Wells said: "I deeply regret that I have been forced to release private correspondence, but this had to be done to confirm that I am telling the truth about how I have been treated.

"All this is heart-breaking for me, but I have been buoyed by the support shown to me from the grassroots of the party that I love."

A DUP spokesman claimed at the time that Mr Wells' accusations were "inaccurate".

"The party is very sorry that Jim Wells has chosen to make the comments that he has across a series of interviews.

"The party, at all levels, has tried to work with Jim given the scale of the challenges he has faced in recent times, including nominating him to paid positions of responsibility in the Assembly."

Last night, a DUP spokesperson added: "It would not be appropriate to comment on evidence given the public inquiry outside of the inquiry process.

"It is important that the inquiry is allowed to complete its work."

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