>> Jim Wells resigns as Northern Ireland health minister over ‘anti-gay’ remarks
Jim Wells a annoncé ce lundi sa démission alors qu’il fait l’objet d’une enquête policière à la suite d’accusations d’homophobie.
La semaine dernière, il avait déclaré que les enfants vivant au sein de familles homosexuelles « avaient bien plus de chance de faire l’objet d’abus sexuels ou d’être négligés », avant de rapidement s’excuser. Mais au cours du week-end, un couple de lesbiennes et leur fille ont porté plainte pour des propos homophobes tenus sur leur pas de leur porte.
Jim Wells a de son côté expliqué démissionner en raison de l’état de santé de sa femme, ajoutant sur ses propos qu’il n’avait pas l’intention de « contrarier ni offenser quiconque ».
Elu du parti unioniste démocrate (DUP), premier parti au sein de l’Assemblée d’Irlande du nord, Jim Wells faisait campagne pour les élections législatives du 7 mai prochain au Royaume-Uni.
En Irlande du Nord, le poids de la religion reste important et continue à influencer largement les moeurs. Le mariage homosexuel n’y est toujours pas admis, contrairement à l’Angleterre, l’Ecosse ou au Pays de Galles
>> The Democratic Unionists’ bid to become kingmakers in a post-election hung parliament has been sidetracked by the resignation of the party’s health minister in Northern Ireland over alleged homophobic remarks.
Jim Wells stepped down on Monday from his post after the police received a complaint about comments he is said to have made to a gay couple while out canvassing in the general election at the weekend.
Wells was already under fire for appearing to link gay relationships to child abuse during an election debate in the South Down constituency last week. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is also investigating complaints made about those remarks.
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His resignation highlights one of the major problems that Ed Miliband or David Cameron face if they chose to form a minority government backed by DUP votes in the House of Commons.
It exposes the deep strain of evangelical Christian hostility towards gay people from within the DUP, drawing accusations from the likes of the Liberal Democrats that it is not fit to determine the shape of the next government. Nick Clegg said Wells’ comments showed that the DUP “mask had slipped”.
Wells last week caused a furore when he told a debate in Downpatrick that child abuse was more rife among gay couples. “You don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected,” Wells said, before he was shouted down by members of the audience.
The minister later apologised for his remarks, saying that he was under huge personal strain due to his wife’s illness. But the row was compounded by a doorstep exchange Wells allegedly had with a lesbian couple on Saturday.
Wells is reported to have said he did not agree with their lifestyle but later tried to apologise to the couple. The daughter of one of the women said her mother was too upset by Wells’s remarks to accept his apologies.
“Jim Wells was trying to get in, trying to see mum, and her partner said: ‘No, she’s not coming out to see you, she doesn’t want to see you,’” the daughter, who preferred to remain anonymous, told BBC News.
The daughter added: “He kept saying about lifestyle choices and how it was wrong, how his party didn’t believe in lifestyle choices.
“My mum’s partner actually told him she’d voted DUP all her life and he’s now lost her vote.”
The couple reported the remarks to police.
In a move that will draw further criticism from the DUP’s opponents, Peter Robinson, the party leader and Northern Ireland’s first minister, said he would have backed Wells to stay in the job if the health minister had wanted to remain in the post.
While acknowledging the personal strain Wells has been under over his wife Grace being gravely ill, Robinson said: “I have always advised Jim that we stand ready to assist him in any way we can.
“I know Jim was enjoying leading change within the department and putting in place new policies that were making our health service better.
“I would have wanted it to be otherwise but I respect Jim’s decision. However, he is right to put his family first and I will fully support his decision. With such a significant portfolio, there should be an orderly transition; therefore Jim will continue in post until 11 May, when the new minister will take up office. “
Robinson added: “I place on record my thanks, and that of my party, for Jim’s service and trust everyone will accept the stress and strain Jim has encountered over these past months and offer him and his family support and encouragement as Grace battles her illness.”
Wells said: “At no time did I set out to upset or offend anyone and it has upset me greatly that the comments made have caused distress to some within our community.
“I am deeply saddened that some of those who represent a different viewpoint from me have attacked my family and me in a deeply personal, nasty and in some cases threatening way. Some of the outbursts on social media have been particularly abusive and menacing in nature.”
Wells said he was now focused on looking after his wife.
“Those who know my family and I, know the last three months have been the toughest of our lives as we watched my wife, Grace, suffer two successive strokes and battle through major heart surgery.
“Like many families up and down the country who find themselves in similar circumstances our sole motivation has been to support Grace and give her all our support as she has battled for survival.
“Over these weeks there have been many ups and downs and we have endured many heartaches along the way. Last week, Grace’s condition had shown encouraging improvement but will require long-term specialised care.”
The incident has not only shifted focus away from the DUP’s potential role in propping up a Tory or Labour minority at Westminster after 7 May. It has also poisoned further the already toxic relationship between the DUP, the single biggest unionist party, with their partners in the five-party power sharing coalition in Belfast.
The deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, has described Wells as a “bigot” while the centrist Alliance party’s higher education minister, Stephen Farry, said that DUP “apologies are meaningless unless lessons are learnt”.
Wells’ resignation and this latest homophobia row surrounding the DUP exposes the struggle within the party between its born-again Christian fundamentalist wing and modernisers, who want to reach out to a wider electoral base in favour of the union.
The DUP modernisers point out that every time a party figure raises morality or faith based issues, particularly in opposition to gay rights, the subsequent furore rebounds badly for them.
The most notorious instance of this was in 2008, when Iris Robinson, DUP MP and wife of the first minister, launched a bitter attack on homosexuality and said government “has the responsibility to uphold the laws of God”. Less than two years later her career was in ruins after her extra-marital affair with an 19-year-old and her bid to borrow money for him from property developers was exposed.