A number of DUP MLAs are prepared to split from the party if Sinn Fein’s demand for the introduction of gay marriage is met, Jim Wells has said.
Although his party appears willing to negotiate on Irish language provision, the former health minister said approving same sex marriage would be crossing a ‘red line’ in the eyes of many DUP members.
“Peter will not marry Paul in Northern Ireland,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
When asked by the News Letter how many MLAs supported his position, Mr Wells said he would not be elaborating and referred all enquiries to the party’s press office.
In the article, the South Down MLA also claimed that the DUP will resist Sinn Fein’s proposal for a civil forum – because a similar forum in the Irish Republic paved the way for a referendum that backed same-sex marriage.
“We will strangle that idea at birth if that’s what it’s going to bring. Nobody wants it except Gerry Adams anyway,” Mr Wells told the Belfast Telegraph.
Such a civil forum would allow ordinary citizens to propose ideas for new legislation, in the way the constitutional convention in the Republic meets to recommend constitutional change.
Four years ago, 79% of convention delegates in the Republic recommended a constitutional change to make same-sex marriage legal.
A referendum vote approved gay marriage two years later.
Mr Wells said his party would not allow Sinn Fein to bypass the Assembly by discussing same-sex marriage at a civil forum.
Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire met the main Assembly parties on Thursday in an effort to restore the powersharing executive which collapsed when Sinn Fein refused to nominate a replacement for Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.
Commenting on the likelihood of the DUP maintaining its opposition to same-sex marriage, but lifting its veto against it in the Assembly, Mr Wells said that position should not be contemplated.
“Don’t even think that. That’s an absolute no. Some of us would walk before that would happen. We feel very, very strongly about that,” he said.
Although the DUP is now two MLAs short of the 30 required to initiate a petition of concern, it is thought that TUV leader Jim Allister and at least one conservative UUP member would back it.
The DUP declined to comment on Mr Wells’ claims.
• Interviewed by the News Letter on her first day as First Minister in January 2016, Arlene Foster said that the DUP will not shift from its “Christian values” on issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
She said: “The DUP is – and we make no apology for this – founded on very strong Christian values as you know. We as a party will continue to have those very strong Christian values and part of that is in and around the traditional view in terms of marriage.” Mrs Foster also said that she did not think that, even if there was a free vote on those issues, a single DUP MLA would take a different stance.