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Decision to run gay candidate has led to heartbreak in DUP, claims Wells

DUP councillor Alison Bennington
DUP councillor Alison Bennington
Rev James Beggs

By David Young

Veteran DUP politician Jim Wells last night said that his party's decision to run a gay candidate in the local council elections had left members of the party "heartbroken".

The former Stormont Health Minister was speaking after the resignation from the party of Rev James Beggs, a brother-in-law of the late DUP founder and leader, Rev Ian Paisley.

Alison Bennington was elected to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council earlier this month, breaking the mould for a party that has been a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and is rooted in traditional Christian values.

Rev Beggs, who is married to Margaret, Lord Bannside's sister, told the Irish News the selection of a gay candidate was the "final thing" that led to his resignation.

"I wasn't happy with the direction the party was going in in recent days," he said. "I had been a paid-up member until this happened. I felt I had to resign."

Mr Wells, who no longer has the party whip, described Rev Beggs as "one of the founding fathers of the DUP. I've known him for 40 years. His resignation is a highly significant act.

"He was Dr Paisley's election agent - in European, Westminster and Stormont from 1969 until he stood down as an MP - almost 50 years.

"He was a crucial part of the DUP machine in Northern Ireland, and gave the bulk of his adult life to the party.

"I spoke to him before he handed in his resignation - and he is absolutely heartbroken," the South Down MLA said.

"Like myself and many others, he is heartbroken about the situation in which we find ourselves.

"This decision (to run gay candidate Alison Bennington) has hurt and upset and left many long-term members of the party totally shocked."

Mr Wells said he was aware of many other long term members of the DUP who felt the same - and said other resignations were in the pipeline.

"People just cannot understand what's going on," he said.

"People who fought for this party through very difficult times, times when the party was despised. Now, as better times have begun, they feel terribly let down.

"This decision goes against the ethos, history and tradition of the DUP."

Ms Bennington's initial selection as a DUP candidate and subsequent election victory has been the subject of widespread media coverage, although she has not yet spoken publicly on the topic.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said her party will have to consider previous comments made by Mr Wells surrounding Ms Bennington.

She has also said that she was delighted to see Ms Bennington elected, while the party maintains that its opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage remains unchanged.

Mr Wells predicted that Rev Beggs' resignation marked the beginning of an exodus of older DUP members. Asked if he was considering his own membership, Mr Wells said: "I'm trying to make the party see sense, and review this decision. I believe that I and Jim Beggs, and the others who have been hurt, represent the true spirit of the DUP."

He said that the party had been changed utterly, not just by its decision to run a gay candidate, "but by the way the party hierarchy have supported and welcomed it".

The MLA said: "I have nothing personal against this particular lady: it's who she represents that is the issue. This is a watershed moment in the party's history. This is a Rubicon.

"It's a hugely significant decision by the party, and has totally transformed what many people understand it to be. Many, many people rely upon the DUP to hold the line on these major moral issues - and at the first hurdle we've failed miserably."

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