A veteran DUP representative has announced his resignation from the party as he declared his support for a candidate from the rival TUV in the Stormont elections.
Jim Wells, who has been the DUP’s Assembly representative in South Down since 1998 and a former health minister, has called on voters to give their first preference to Harold McKee of the TUV on May 5.
He said he has now resigned from the DUP after 46 years.
The DUP responded by stating the election was about more than “mere personalities”.
Mr Wells told the PA news agency that he could not support the party’s candidate in South Down for the Assembly elections, Diane Forsythe.
My decision was either to back the official candidate who has been imposed or to back someone I have confidence inJim Wells
He said: “I cannot accept the candidate that the DUP centrally have imposed on South Down.
“The association were never consulted, in fact we haven’t even been told technically that she is standing and I knew that if I was not prepared to back her and came out publicly against that candidate I would be thrown out of the party, so therefore I thought I would do the decent thing and resign before I was pushed.”
Mr Wells said that Ms Forsyth’s views on social issues were at variance with his own.
He added: “We had hoped that Edwin Poots would be the candidate and therefore I would have given my enthusiastic backing to him, but it came to a point of principle that someone was going to be imposed upon the association.
“My decision was either to back the official candidate who has been imposed or to back someone I have confidence in.”
He said he would give “very serious consideration” to any offer to join the TUV.
Speaking about the future direction of the DUP, he said: “I think it is a battle between the traditionalists, of which I am one, and the modernisers who want to take us into the middle ground on important social issues and I just can’t live with that.”
Mr Wells found out earlier this year that he had not been selected as the party’s candidate for the South Down constituency after Ms Forsythe was chosen as the candidate.
Mr Wells had been vocal in his opposition to Ms Forsythe as the candidate, and instead backed a failed bid by former DUP leader Mr Poots to become the party’s candidate in the area.
He has posed in election photographs with Mr McKee and TUV leader Jim Allister.
In a statement, Mr Wells said: “As I leave the Assembly it is my earnest desire that South Down should continue to have a Unionist MLA whose politics are grounded in conviction and principle.
“Among the candidates Harold McKee is the stand-out candidate with these credentials.
“He holds dear many of the core principles that I upheld in Stormont and is widely and properly respected as a politician of conviction, not expediency.
“Accordingly, I recommend him to those who faithfully supported me at the polls over the years and urge them to vote McKee 1.”
Mr McKee said Mr Wells had been “abandoned by his own party”.
He added: “I am delighted to have his support and gratified that a broad swathe of unionism is uniting behind me as the standard bearer of principled unionism.”
TUV leader Mr Allister said: “At critical times in Stormont, Jim Wells was often the only MLA prepared to join me in doing what was right.
“In December 2020 we were the only MLAs to speak and vote against 45 EU regulations essential to bedding in the iniquitous (Northern Ireland) Protocol.
“Putting party advantage before principle would have been easy, but Jim did the right thing and likewise today in backing Harold he is putting principle before party.”
A DUP spokesperson said: “This election is much more important than mere personalities. The seat totals after the count will decide whether NI goes in the right or wrong direction and our priorities for the next five years.
“Diane Forsythe secured the DUP’s best ever result in South Down in 2017.
“She is a young mother, rooted in the Mournes with a plan for South Down. Diane will focus on what matters to people.”
If Jim Wells’ mate Edwin Poots had been selected to run in Sth Down Jim would not be supporting the TUV candidate. Jim didn’t get his own way and so has thrown his toys out of the pram and gone off with the boys. The fact that Diane Forsythe is a capable Unionist WOMAN is too— Arlene Foster #ProudofNI. (@ArleneFosterUK) April 12, 2022
Former DUP leader Arlene Foster criticised Mr Wells, claiming he had “thrown his toys out of the pram”.
She tweeted: “If Jim Wells’ mate Edwin Poots had been selected to run in Sth Down Jim would not be supporting the TUV candidate.
“Jim didn’t get his own way and so has thrown his toys out of the pram and gone off with the boys.”
She added: “The voters in Sth Down have a choice – principled, able, active representation in Diane Forsythe (something they haven’t had for years with Jim Wells) or someone backed by Jim Wells who thought he could impose his will on the voters of South Down as if the seat was his and not theirs.”