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Withdrawal of whip could backfire badly on DUP and put Sinn Fein in the box seat: Wells


Jim Wells joined the DUP in 1975

Jim Wells joined the DUP in 1975

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy Nigel Dodds

DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy Nigel Dodds

Getty Images

Jim Wells with former party leader Peter Robinson

Jim Wells with former party leader Peter Robinson

Jim Wells joined the DUP in 1975

Former DUP Health Minister Jim Wells has revealed that he hasn't talked to party leader Arlene Foster in nine months.

Mr Wells was speaking yesterday after the party whip was withdrawn from him.

He became embroiled in a row with the party following an explosive interview last month in the Belfast Telegraph.

The party withdrew the whip from the South Down MLA after he criticised it for a "broken promise" to reinstate him as Health Minister after his controversial resignation three years ago.

He resigned following false allegations he had made inappropriate remarks about homosexuals.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson denied that Mr Wells had been promised he could return to the post.

Mr Wells is the DUP's longest-serving Stormont politician.

He has been a party member for 41 years and an MLA for a total of 24 years. He also served as a councillor for 17 years.

He told Radio Ulster's Nolan Show the removal of the whip could mean that Sinn Fein now has the same number of seats as the DUP - but he added that he did not believe there was any prospect of Stormont returning in the near future.

"The Assembly is in suspension and I don't understand the removing of the whip. It does mean I can't attend DUP group meetings, but there hasn't been one for nine weeks," he said.

"It's like telling me I have to work to 4pm on a Sunday when I don't work on a Sunday.

"It effectively means I am no longer part of the DUP group at Stormont."

Mr Wells said the decision was not unexpected.

"It is disappointing, but not as difficult when you see it coming," he said.

"I still remain at Stormont, there's no election to May 2022, and I haven't gone away you know.

"Currently for votes in the Assembly the DUP have one seat more. We're in uncharted territory, the party having removed the whip means it's now 27 even at Stormont, it's a tie."

The veteran politician said it was unclear exactly what the decision meant.

"We're trying to work out what are the implications if devolution ever returns, for instance who gets First Minister.

"I think it's unlikely in the foreseeable future there will be a return to devolution. I don't think it will happen unless there is an election in the Republic of Ireland and until Brexit is out of the way.

"I'm certain the people who have withdrawn the whip have worked out the implications of that."

Host Vinny Hurrell, standing in for Stephen Nolan, pointed out that as the DUP Speaker Robin Newton has no vote, that could effectively make it 27-26 to Sinn Fein in terms of voting.

"Someone sent me a very interesting message at 3am that said the DUP can no longer count my 8,000 votes towards their overall total, which means the gap is only 1,200, so the DUP are now behind Sinn Fein, even if it was 27 each," Mr Wells added.

He revealed that he rarely has contact with DUP leader Mrs Foster and hasn't spoken to her since he aired his issues with the party in public.

"I have had no contact with Arlene at all, it's a long time since I last spoke to her about anything," the South Down MLA said.

"I haven't spoken to Arlene in about nine months.

"I don't mix in those circles, if Arlene is Manchester United, I'm Distillery Reserves. I'm not in the upper echelons so I wouldn't meet her that often."

Mr Wells said he wasn't considering joining any other party and remained supportive of the DUP leadership and its policies.

"I still remain a very strong DUP supporter because I believe that on Brexit the DUP are doing the right thing and in the 'confidence and supply' agreement and are right to refuse to have an Irish Language Act.

"I have no party policy difficulties whatsoever."

However, Mr Wells said he thought the party could change its stance on some important issues in the future.

"I think, like all parties, the DUP are modernising," he said.

"There is always a fracture between the traditionalists and those who want to move on and form a new, more acceptable party.

"I am the old-fashioned, Ian Paisley DUP person, I joined in 1975 when we were a very different party than we are today."

He pointed to his long-term experience.

"I would hold to the traditional views, I don't believe in same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia and all-night drinking," Mr Wells said.

"I think eventually the DUP will move towards a more middle ground view on those issues.

"Most of the party officers are now former Ulster Unionist members and we have benefited from an influx of talent at all levels.

"I just don't think the party should forget the people who put up the posters and knocked the doors when it wasn't respectable to be a DUP member.

"I remember the days of having the door slammed in your face and being chased down the garden path."

When asked if he intended to run for election again, Mr Wells said his ultimate goal was to remain in the party he was been with for more than 40 years.

"At the moment they wouldn't select me and I don't know where I'll be in four years," Mr Wells said.

"I haven't made my mind up about running as an independent, it's a very difficult thing to do at Assembly level.

"At home I have severe difficulties with personal family illness.

"I'd love to get back into the party."

Belfast Telegraph