Jim Wells says 'I can't cope with women' remark was a joke ... and he's scared by leader Arlene Foster
Stormont video footage of DUP MLA Jim Wells saying he "can't cope with women aged eight to 80" has sparked a formal complaint to the Assembly's standards watchdog.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson lodged the complaint with the Assembly Commissioner after a video featuring Mr Wells and UUP MLA Ross Hussey sparked an online backlash yesterday, despite having been on the parliament's website since early February.
Apparently unaware that he was being recorded, 37 seconds into the recording of the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Wells apparently tells Mr Hussey that he was "scared out of his wits" when a female civil servant resembling his party leader Arlene Foster enters the room.
Mr Wells apparently catches sight of the woman dressed in a beige jacket and carrying documents, before remarking to Mr Hussey: "She reminds me of Arlene Foster. She scared the wits out of me... the resemblance there."
He then suggests that "she wouldn't take prisoners".
Seconds later, Mr Wells is heard telling Mr Hussey: "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."
Mr Dickson has written to the Assembly Commissioner for Standards, Douglas Bain, to see whether the comments represent a breach of Stormont's code of conduct. East Antrim MLA Mr Dickson said: "I have asked the commissioner to investigate urgently whether the Assembly has been brought into disrepute.
"I look forward to his response and Mr Wells' explanation of his alleged comments."
But last night, Mr Wells hit back at his critics with the response that the comment "was a self-deprecating joke" about how he has never had much success with women, and that it was never intended to be sexist in any way.
"The video is totally inaccurate. Nobody can hear it properly," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Some people on social media suggested that Mr Wells, a committed Christian, uttered a swear word on the video - a claim he strongly denied. And the denial was backed by Mr Hussey, a political opponent.
Mr Wells said: "The story is totally untrue. The story is of a joke between Ross and myself.
"Ross is a bachelor, and we were making the comment that I am popular with women under eight and over 80 but can't cope with the ones in between - that is a self-deprecating joke about me.
"There's nothing there at all about women in Northern Ireland."
Mr Hussey backed Mr Wells' version of events, saying: "Somebody somewhere is making a mountain out of a molehill.
"I really do not see what the story is here. There were absolutely no sexist remarks. It was not intended to be sexist - the line about 'eight to 80' was a throwaway comment."
Former DUP minister Edwin Poots also spoke out to back his party colleague.
"Jim has never used bad language in the 35 years I have known him," he said.
"Ross Hussey will confirm Jim used the word 'between' while Ross simultaneously said 'disaster'. Jim is still in a bad way after all he has came through and doesn't need this."
The MLA recently announced plans to stand as a DUP candidate in the forthcoming Assembly elections. There had been speculation over whether Mr Wells would stand again after he became embroiled in controversy last year and his wife had a number of strokes.
Mr Wells was wrongly accused of making homophobic remarks about gay marriage, but this was based on a video tape that was edited to distort what he actually said. Later, the Public Prosecution Service said he would not be prosecuted.
The DUP declined to comment.