DUP Health Minister Jim Wells has apologised for comments made in Downpatrick in which he allegedly said that children raised by gay parents were "far more likely" to be abused or neglected.
Speaking at South Down election hustings hosted by the Down Recorder on Thursday Mr Wells reportedly said: "The facts show that certainly you don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship ... that child is far more likely to be abused or neglected ... in a non-stable marriage."
On Thursday night there were calls for Mr Wells to retract the remarks. The DUP minister initially issued a statement to say that he had been misrepresented, was not attacking the gay community and stood by his position on gay marriage.
In that statement Mr Wells said: "During a debate in South Down this evening I refused to agree with an audience member that marriage should be redefined. I oppose the redefinition of marriage. Indeed the Assembly has voted three times on this matter and every time a cross party selection of MLAs have supported the current definition of marriage.
"At the hustings event, I said that marriage was a stable environment to raise children. I am saddened that some people were trying to misrepresent my comments. Where there are non-stable relationships involving children, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the children suffer. I make no distinction between anyone who neglects a child on the basis of their sexual orientation."
Calls for apology
SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood said he was "appalled" by the comments. He called on Mr Wells to withdraw them and issue an apology.
Mr Eastwood said: "Not satisfied with his already robust opposition to equality for those who define as LGBT, Mr Wells has gone far beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour. To suggest that children raised by gay parents are more likely to be abused is a baseless slur on an entire community.
"The Minister must immediately withdraw these comments and issue a full apology to those who he has seriously wronged tonight. His track record on equality for the LGBT community is there for all to see. From describing gay pride as ‘repugnant’ to spending thousands of pounds of public money on defending the ban on gay men donating blood, he has allowed his own bias to infect his decision making and taint his judgment.
"We have thousands of children in care, many of whom have suffered abuse. Many LGBT couples want to provide a loving and supportive environment for raising children. By making such serious and unfounded allegations Minister Wells will have dissuaded many from adopting. He should be ashamed of himself and must immediately resile from the remarks."
Wells issues apology
On Friday morning Mr Wells issued a further statement to say that he accepted "one line of what I said caused offence and deep concern amongst members of the audience and beyond" and apologised.
He said: “The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for me personally. I had just come from a hospital visit and my focus was not on the debate. Indeed, during the event I received several messages from the hospital.
"I have listened to a recording of the relevant part of the debate. I accept that one line of what I said caused offence and deep concern amongst members of the audience and beyond.
"I regret having wrongly made that remark about abuse and I’m sorry those words were uttered. The comment did not reflect my view nor that of my party.
"Within seconds of realising this error, I asked the Chairman to let me back in and twice corrected my remarks before the debate moved on. This clarification has been confirmed by the journalists present at the event. Partial clips, spin and selective reporting regrettably miss this.
"The neglect or abuse of children is awful and happens in unstable relationships whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. I make no distinction between anyone who neglects or abuses a child regardless of their sexual orientation. I trust people will accept my explanation and my apology.”
Politicians slam remarks
Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard, who was on the hustings panel, tweeted after the event: "Still in shock at health minister’s insane attack on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual community tonight - he should withdraw remarks immediately."
The Ulster Unionist Party said the comments were "absolutely appalling... and totally wrong".
"They were outrageous comments from Jim Wells that would attempt to link same sex partnerships with increased incidences of child abuse and neglect," a party statement said.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt told the BBC's Nolan Show: "Jim Wells needs to do more in deed and in action to prove that the real Jim Wells is reflected in this morning's statement rather than in yesterday's comment.
"If the real Jim Wells is reflected in yesterday's comment I do not have any time for Jim Wells to be the minister for health."
Alliance North Down MLA, Stephen Farry, said on Thursday night: "As Health Minister, he has responsibilities around social care and also for implementing changes to adoption law, including abiding by recent court judgements.
"Jim Wells' statement that was issued by the DUP press office [on Thursday night], makes no attempt to apologise for these hurtful remarks, showing once again the DUP's refusal to acknowledge when they are in the wrong.
"There is absolutely no link between the incidence of abuse and neglect and the sexual orientation of parents. Nor indeed, if there is any difference between two parent and single parent households.
"Alliance will be looking to raise this matter with Assembly officials and ask them to investigate whether he has broken any Assembly rules.
"His credibility in office has been seriously undermined by these remarks."
Other candidates standing in the South Down constituency are: the Conservative Party's Felicity Buchan, UUP's Harold McKee, UKIP's Henry Reilly, SDLP's Margaret Ritchie and the Alliance Party's Martyn Todd.
Stormont's justice minister David Ford said Jim Wells' comments "expose a deep vein of homophobia and disrespect for the LGBT community which runs throughout the DUP".
The Alliance MLA said: "Any right-thinking person would be disgusted by these vile, inaccurate and hurtful comments. But sadly, it was not an isolated incident within the DUP. There have been numerous occasions where elected representatives have attempted to deny gay rights and advocated discrimination against those in the LGBT community, whether trying to blame them for Hurricane Katrina or stating homosexuality is viler than child abuse.
"Therefore Mr Wells’ comments are not detached but clearly part of a wider pattern of behaviour. One only has to look at his predecessor as Health Minister, who fought a crusade against gay men donating blood, not based on evidence but personal prejudice, as well as the party’s proposal for a conscience clause to remove equality for LGBT people.
"If this had been a Minister from a party in any other part of the UK, even from the so-called more extreme wings, they would have already resigned. Yet Peter Robinson has defended Mr Wells. That raises serious questions.
"However, one minister’s resignation will mean nothing if he is replaced by someone with the same values. The DUP need to take a long look at their policies and attitudes, and question them deeply.
"I would also encourage the UUP to ask themselves if they can continue to ask their supporters to vote for the DUP as part of their pact, and ask Mike Nesbitt if he will still vote for that same party."
DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said the party stood by Mr Wells. Mr Robinson said Mr Wells "accepted the remarks were offensive and that is why he has apologised".
"Anybody that looks at the comments will recognise that on a better day Jim would not have made such a comment. Everybody knows the pressure he has been under over the last number of months with his wife being ill in hospital and trying to keep going a very significant department in the Executive.
"He has immediately, as soon as he made the comments, he knew what he said was the wrong thing and he shouldn’t have said it. He got the attention of the chairman during the debate to try and rectify it without being pushed by anybody.
"He has put out a very sincere and fulsome apology and I think people should give him a break because of the special circumstances. He very rightly says it is neither his view nor is it the Democratic Unionist Party’s view.
"I reiterate that again today. That is not our view nor will it ever be our view."
The DUP has previously come under fire for its comments and policies in relation to LGBT issues.
In 2008 Mr Robinson said he endorsed his wife’s controversial views that gays are an 'abomination'. The First Minister told the BBC Northern Ireland Hearts and Minds programme: “It wasn’t Iris Robinson who determined that homosexuality was an abomination, it was the Almighty.
"This is the Scriptures and it is a strange world indeed where somebody on the one hand talks about equality, but won’t allow Christians to have the equality, the right to speak, the right to express their views."
Earlier that year the First Minister's wife Iris stated in Parliament that homosexuality is “viler” than child sex abuse.
Mrs Robinson then stated: “There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.”
In 2007 Ian Paisley jnr told Hot Press magazine: "I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong.
"I think that those people harm themselves and - without caring about it - harm society. That doesn't mean to say that I hate them. I mean, I hate what they do."
This week the Prime Minister David Cameron has said he "will never validate" the DUP's stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues.
The Tory leader said he “profoundly disagreed” with the party's policy on LGBT issues. The Prime Minister was being grilled by 10 potential young voters in BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat’s Live Lounge leader debate.
Mary Hassan, from Londonderry, told Mr Cameron that the DUP had done "significant and long-term damage” to the LGBT community in Northern Ireland."
Ms Hassan said: "They’ve consistently blocked motions for marriage equality and uphold a gay blood ban and currently are putting forward the conscience clause bill.
"Now, I’d like to know – is staying in office more important that the LGBT community in Northern Ireland?"
Mr Cameron responded: “I totally disagree with the DUP about this [LGBT] issue and nothing I ever do will go against the values I have about believing in equality and equal rights for gay and lesbian people and I’ve put that, as it were, on the line by supporting equal marriage.
“So I’m never going to change my views about that.”
The full interview can with David Cameron be heard to on BBC iPlayer.