Outbreaks of unionist prejudice have dominated the British general election in the north of Ireland, where 18 Westminster parliament seats are being contested.
The election has produced a surge of public debate, and unionist campaigners from the DUP and the TUV have made headlines for their derogatory and hypocritical comments.
The DUP’s candidate in South Down, Jim Wells (pictured), created the greatest controversy on Thursday night when he made the homophobic comment that children raised in a home with homosexual parents were “far more likely” to be abused or neglected.
Wells is the Health Minister of the Stormont regime, with direct responsibility for social services and family welfare across the Six Counties.
Speaking at South Down election hustings on Thursday, Wells said: “The facts show that certainly you don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship ... that a child is far more likely to be abused or neglected ... in a non-stable marriage.”
Although DUP figures have routinely denounced homosexuality over the years -- the party is opposed to marriage equality, blood donations by gay men and adoption by gay couples -- the outburst by a Minister for Health, in the teeth of a general election, created a storm on social media in Ireland and Britain.
Members of the gay and lesbian community in the North said they planned to seek charges against Wells for hate speech, while the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood said he was “appalled” by Wells’ comments.
Mr Eastwood said: “Not satisfied with his already robust opposition to equality for those who define as LGBT, Mr Wells has gone far beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour. To suggest that children raised by gay parents are more likely to be abused is a baseless slur on an entire community.”
Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard, who was on the hustings panel, also called on Wells to withdraw the comments. Mr Hazzard tweeted: “Still in shock at health minister’s insane attack on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual community tonight - he should withdraw remarks immediately.”
Wells initially issued a statement to say that he opposed gay marriage but had been misquoted. On Friday morning he issued a further statement to say that he accepted “one line of what I said caused offence”, and apologised.
The DUP leader Peter Robinson has said he is standing by his candidate, putting a post-election deal between the DUP and Conservatives in doubt.
The Six County Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the comments as “reprehensible and completely unacceptable” for a health minister. “His position as health minister is clearly no longer tenable and the DUP leadership should now reflect on that.”
It is not the first bigoted comment by the DUP in the campaign. Earlier this month, a woman who signed a DUP election candidate’s nomination papers was criticised for referring to ‘taigs’, a derogatory term for Catholics, on social networks.
Roberta McNally, who is a prominent figure in the British Legion remembrance organisation, is campaigning for David Simpson’s bid to retain his MP seat in Upper Bann.
She made the comment on Facebook in a debate about unionist unity. “Here we go again unionist attacking unionist - Taigs must love it,” she wrote. Sinn Fein candidate Catherine Seeley said such comments from a key member of Simpson’s Westminster campaign team were sectarian and “could not be justified”.
Meanwhile, a TUV council candidate was separately criticised for a sectarian comment referring to “Neil IRAnaway Lennon” in a Facebook posting, referring to the former manager of Glasgow Celtic who hails from Lurgan, County Armagh. The comment by Wallace Douglas was apparently intended as a taunt about Lennon’s failure to involve himself in the IRA.
The TUV was also accused of “double standards” after it emerged that the election agent for its Mid-Ulster candidate has a conviction for involvement in stopping motorists with a rifle at an illegal loyalist roadblock. TUV leader Jim Allister, who has campaigned against former republican prisoners securing employment at Stormont, said his party’s election agent had “paid his price to society.”
Legislation brought by Allister to prevent former members of the Provisional IRA becoming political advisors at the Stormont Assembly was passed by the assembly in 2013. North Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay said that the TUV leader’s remarks “beggared belief”, and said it proved his bill was “all about undermining the Good Friday Agreement and persecuting republicans”.