The row over claims that Peter Robinson had promised to reinstate Jim Wells as a Stormont minister has taken a fresh twist with the emergence of an email from the former first minister about the South Down MLA’s future.
The party has declined to comment on the email, which DUP MLA Mr Wells believes constitutes a clear promise by Mr Robinson to reinstate him in government – something which never happened in the eight months Mr Robinson remained in office after Mr Wells’ resignation.
Mr Wells stepped down from his post as Stormont health minister after a hustings debate in Downpatrick on April 23 2015. A brief video clip emerged in the aftermath which critics said showed him linking homosexuality with child abuse – something he strongly denied.
However, in the mouth of a general election on May 7 2015, Mr Wells resigned his ministerial seat as his party came under intense pressure due to the row.
Last week Mr Wells gave an interview to the Belfast Telegraph in which he said Mr Robinson had promised him that he would be reinstated in a ministerial position.
Speaking on the Nolan Show last week, Mr Robinson said he made no promise to Mr Wells that he would get his job back.
“That’s not the way I would characterise it but I’m not going to get involved in those kind of issues and it wasn’t my decision to make,” he said.
“I did not make that promise, those are not the words I used. I was much more careful. I indicated that he was capable of coming back as a minister and that’s very different.”
But now Mr Wells has disclosed to the News Letter an email from Mr Robinson which the MLA says constituted a promise that gave him the confidence to resign, on the understanding he would be reinstated.
In an email seen by the News Letter, dated April 27 2015, Mr Robinson wrote: “I made it clear to Jim that I thought he had done a good job and if Grace [Mr Wells’ wife] returned to health and he felt able to take up this (or for that matter another) post I would be happy to see him back in government. Obviously publication of this would cause several problems but I think you are aware that I felt Jim needed time to be with Grace and that we should see to it that no impediment was placed in his being able to return to office.”
Mr Wells said the email was sent to a party official the day after he met Mr Robinson to discuss his future.
This was two days after the story broke about Mr Wells’ hustings comments.
“I genuinely believed the email from Mr Robinson was an assurance that I would be reinstated as a Stormont minister,” Mr Wells said.
“It was passed on to me as a result of a one and a half hour conversation with Peter in his home.
“I could see very clearly there was a media feeding frenzy in the wake of my hustings comments and that it was going to be impossible to resolve that before the election.
“We were due to go to the polls 10 days later and I did not want to have it on my conscience that I had caused one of our MPs to lose their seats.
“Peter said to me ‘you should not resign’ but I said I would resign to take the heat out of the situation – so long as I could return. They drafted my resignation statement but I said ‘I am not going until I get the promise in writing’.”
Mr Robinson then wrote his email about Mr Wells’ future on April 27 2015, which was then passed to the MLA by a party official. Satisfied with the assurances in the email, Mr Wells formally resigned as minister the same day.
Mr Wells added: “Peter remained in office for eight months after he gave me this reassurance, yet I was never reinstated.”
He said that after his resignation he made three appeals to party officers for reinstatement ahead of Executive reshuffles, but to no avail.
Mr Wells believes a full transcript of his hustings comments in Downpatrick later vindicated him, as police subsequently dropped a hate crime investigation into him.
However, a Dungannon woman whose complaint sparked the investigation was herself given a three month jail sentence in 2016 when police discovered she had not even been present at the event. The sentence was reduced to community service after appeal.