Gay rights dominates the social media conversation in Northern Ireland
Attitudes towards gay people have become a big election issue in Northern Ireland.
It began with a viral video that's now all over the news. Northern Ireland Health Minister Jim Wells - who is standing in the UK general election for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - was filmed at a hustings last Thursday. "You don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected," he said.
When the video hit social media it sparked fierce debate. Wells apologised several times for making the comment, saying that he had been under a lot of pressure over recent weeks because his wife is currently unwell and receiving treatment in hospital. On Monday, he released a statement saying that he was standing down as health minister to help his wife, Grace, in her "fight for life."
The video was uploaded to Twitter by 17-year-old Clare Calvert, who told BBC Trending that she doesn't support any particular political party: "I was attending the hustings because I was there to ask a question to the panel on what they could bring to South Down (the local area) to allow me to live there when I finished university."
She says that she actually thought Mr Wells did a good job as health minister, but that "his views have alienated so many members of society" that there was no way he could continue in the position.
The video she posted and the intense debate around it are significant developments, given that the DUP is currently the largest Northern Irish party at Westminster. Mr Wells' name and the debate about attitudes towards gay people have been trending ever since in Northern Ireland - with more than 14,000 tweets so far.
Opponents of the DUP sought to make political capital out of it all. The republican author, Danny Morrison, has been particularly active, tweeting: "So, Jim Wells suffers from narcolepsy. Looked wide-awake to me." He also retweeted a widely shared picture of dinosaurs mocking the DUP candidate's attitudes.
Members of the Labour Party of Northern Ireland also joined in. Writer Adrianne Peltz tweeted: "The next time politicians ask why so many young people are leaving NI, just direct them to @Jim_Wells_MLA & his state sponsored hate speech."
The SDLP announced on Twitter that they had planned to submit a motion of no confidence in Wells had he not resigned. "He is no longer fit to hold office," they tweeted. The Sinn Féin assembly member and spokesperson Maeve McLaughlin shared a post by a gay rights charity which read: "We are not a lobby we are a community. Disgusting lies which are harmful and full of hate."
The chair of the Alliance party's LGBT group, Mickey Murray, created a petition which called for Wells' resignation. "Over 8,500 signatures asking for his resignation, over 3,000 more signatures than votes Jim Wells received to get into the assembly," he tweeted. The Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, said Wells "had done the right thing in resigning."
But some DUP members tried to turn the controversy against rival parties. Doug Beattie wrote: "Jim Wells quits over gay child abuse comments... meanwhile Gerry Adams remains although he knew about child abuse & said nothing." It was a reference to Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, whose brother Liam was convicted of sexually abusing his daughter (In 2013, Gerry Adams gave an interview in which he admitted that his brother had told him about the abuse).
Mr Wells' comments came as the Northern Ireland assembly held a private members' debate on marriage equality. And next month in the Republic of Ireland, voters will take part in a referendum on same-sex marriage. A similar law proposed by Sinn Féin was defeated in Northern Ireland by the leading unionist parties in 2013.
Despite stepping down from his ministerial post, Mr Wells is still standing as the DUP candidate in the South Down constituency. The other candidates in South Down are Felicity Buchan of the Conservatives, Chris Hazzard of Sinn Féin, the UUP's Harold McKee, Henry Reilly of UKIP, the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie and Martyn Todd of the Alliance Party.
Blog by Hannah Henderson
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