Two of Jim Wells’ unionist rivals have come to his defence over a “ridiculous” decision to report light-hearted comments to the Assembly Standards Commissioner.
The former health minister was picked up by a microphone at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee last week during which he whispered to Ulster Unionist Ross Hussey as a female civil servant entered.
Not all of the audio is clear, but Mr Wells can be heard joking that she reminded him of Arlene Foster and “scared the wits out of me”, adding “she doesn’t take prisoners” and then saying: “I’m brilliant with woman under eight and over 80 - dreadful with the ones in between; can’t cope with women in between eight and 80.”
The week-old comments only emerged on Tuesday and spread on social media alongside ferocious criticism of the former health minister.
Sinn Fein’s Megan Fearon accused Mr Wells of “contemptible” behaviour which she claimed was “sexism”, while Alliance’s Stewart Dickson formally referred the what he said were “alleged sexist and ageist comments” to the Assembly’s standards commissioner for investigation.
Mr Hussey told the Nolan Show that he was not at all shocked by Mr Wells’s “simple off the cuff remark...Jim Wells was not offensive to anybody; he was having a go at himself”.
And Mr Wells’s constituency rival John McCallister, who will be going up against Mr Wells for election in three months’ time, said that the complaints against the DUP veteran are “ridiculous”.
The independent MLA said that those who know Mr Wells know that he has a self-deprecating sense of humour.
“The comment was in a private conversation between him and Ross Hussey – it was not aimed at women; it was aimed at himself. It has been blown out of all proportion, like a lot of things around Jim over the last year – from the police investigating him canvassing in Downpatrick to the report to the standards commissioner.
“Has no one anything better to do with their time?”
Mr McCallister said that the timing of the row – which came a week after the comments were made and just as the DUP is believed to be in the final days of deciding whether to stand Mr Wells as its candidate in South Down – “strike me as a bit odd”.
Mr Wells referred a request for comment to the DUP press office which at the time of going to press had not responded.
On Wednesday evening, Sinn Fein said that the party had submitted a formal complaint about Mr Wells – not about his original remarks on February 3, but about “an incident” involving Mr Wells in the Assembly’s main chamber on Tuesday night.
In video footage shown on the BBC, Mr Wells is seen to stop and speak to Megan Fearon at the door of the Assembly. Caral Ni Chuilin then comes to her side, and Mr Wells resumes his seat.
Sinn Fein said: “The complaint has been made on the grounds of Equality, Respect and Good Working Relationships between members.”
Mr Wells referred a request for comment to the DUP press office.
On Wednesday night it said: “People will understand that Jim has had an incredibly tough time over recent months. It’s quite clear he did not intend to be offensive. With a female leader and half our ministerial team, those accusing the party of sexism are being ridiculous.”