Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Why the DUP should take up the challenge which has been thrown down by Jim Wells

We know what the party used to stand for, says Fionola Meredith, but just where are they heading now?

Having a problem with the DUP for being too liberal is a bit like taking Russia to task for being overly soft on ex-spies. After all, in many people's eyes, the DUP are arch-conservatives, traditionalist to the marrow, fuelled with moral and religious fervour.

Not to Jim Wells, though. The DUP stalwart, in an outspoken interview with this newspaper, which he later expanded upon elsewhere, does not like the way he sees the party leadership going.

Jim sees a bad moon rising. He suspects the DUP of a desire to modernise, to become more inclusive, in defiance of the views of people like him.

Seemingly proudly, he identifies himself as a dinosaur, outside the mainstream, "the embarrassing uncle sitting in the corner at the Christmas party".

Wells opposes abortion in all circumstances, even in the case of rape or extreme foetal abnormality. In the past, he has suggested that rape victims continue the pregnancy to term and then hand the baby over to one of the "hundreds of married couples in Northern Ireland who would love to adopt children".

He's also against gay marriage, believing that children are best brought up in a "loving, monogamous, heterosexual marriage". Now we know that he opposes legalising cannabis, casinos and all night drinking too.

So far, so DUP, you might think.

Uncle Jim, however, has come to the conclusion that his face simply doesn't fit any more. Wells does not believe that he has changed. But he thinks the DUP leadership has.

The rest of us may be scratching our heads in bemusement. There is little external indication, as far as I can see, that the DUP are suddenly about to turn into sandal-wearing, anything-goes hippies. I really can't picture Arlene Foster demanding the legal right to enjoy a fat spliff, or Nigel Dodds extolling the heady delights of the roulette wheel.

More seriously, when a United Nations committee recently said that the denial of reproductive rights to women in Northern Ireland "may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment", I did not hear any DUP voices promising reform.

Yet they are a party renowned for their pragmatism, and if they have any common sense at all, they must realise that the world has moved on from the days when Jim's hero, party founder Ian Paisley, guldered loud and long about the dangers of sodomy and the devil's buttermilk.

There has been the odd welcome sign of progress, such as the backing of gay pardons for men convicted of abolished sex offences in Northern Ireland, in 2016 - which would have been unthinkable even a decade before. But it's still nowhere near enough.

The DUP has shown every sign of wishing to avoid Jim Wells' dramatically-thrown gauntlet. He says he expects stern disciplinary action, the world falling on his head, following his attack on the party leadership.

But aside from a short, perfunctory statement, regretting the MLA's comments and disputing their accuracy, reaction from the DUP has been muted, with a tone of 'more in sorrow than in anger' prevailing.

And now Peter Robinson has rejected Wells' claim that he was promised he could return to his job as health minister after resigning. The wagons are circling, and Jim is on the outside, howling at the moon.

Yet rather than ignoring and sidelining Wells, ushering him quietly off the stage to ensure maximum damage limitation, the DUP should rise to his challenge.

We know what they were, in the past. But who are they now, and what do they stand for?

Fear of losing touch with their traditional base comes a very close second to the party's primary dread, which is fear of losing face. But at some point the DUP is going to have to enter the 21st century and accept its realities.

If Wells is correct, and there is a secret desire within the leadership to progress in a more enlightened fashion, now is the moment to declare it. Abortion rights, marriage equality: they are coming to Northern Ireland, sooner or later, whether the DUP likes it or not. The majority of people want change on both counts.

Instead of a minor embarrassment caused by a disgruntled former minister, this outburst by Jim Wells could actually be a turning point for the DUP.

Do they remain fearfully in the corner, with the closed minds of the past, or do they go forward, with courage and real leadership, ready to embrace the future?

Belfast Telegraph

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