First Minister Peter Robinson has defended his embattled Health Minister amid a controversy over remarks he made about gay marriage and child abuse.
The DUP leader said Jim Wells knew his comments at an election husting last night were wrong and highlighted the stress he had been under due to his wife being in hospital.
Mr Wells has apologised for suggesting a child was at more risk of abuse or neglect if brought up in a homosexual relationship, after claiming such marriages were less stable.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed it had received a complaint about Mr Wells’ comments and was making enquiries.
The DUP’s stance on LGBT issues, such as its opposition to gay marriage, has been subject to greater scrutiny beyond Northern Ireland during the election campaign, given the party’s potentially important role in the event of a hung parliament.
Mr Robinson said he stood by his minister and urged people to consider the personal pressures he was under.
“I think anybody who looks at the comments will recognise that on a better day Jim would never have made such a comment,” he said while canvassing in Londonderry.
“I think everybody knows the pressure he has been under the last couple of months with his wife being ill in hospital and trying to keep going a very significant department in the Executive.”
M Robinson added: “He has put out a very sincere and fulsome apology and I think people should give him a break because of the very special circumstances.
“He very rightly says it is neither his view or is it the Democratic Unionist Party’s view. I again reiterate that today. That is not our view and nor will it ever be our view.”
Mr Wells’ wife Grace has been in hospital for around three months after suffering two strokes.
The South Down Assembly Member, who is standing for election in the Westminster poll, said he regretted the offence he caused at the husting event in Downpatrick.
“I have listened to a recording of the relevant part of the debate,” he said.
“I accept that one line of what I said caused offence and deep concern amongst members of the audience and beyond. I regret having wrongly made that remark about abuse and I’m sorry those words were uttered. The comment did not reflect my view nor that of my party.”
The Stormont Health minister said he was not fully focused on the debate.
“The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for me personally,” he said.
“I had just come from a hospital visit and my focus was not on the debate. Indeed, during the event I received several messages from the hospital.”
He added: “Within seconds of realising this error, I asked the chairman to let me back in and twice corrected my remarks before the debate moved on. This clarification has been confirmed by the journalists present at the event. Partial clips, spin and selective reporting regrettably miss this.
“The neglect or abuse of children is awful and happens in unstable relationships whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. I make no distinction between anyone who neglects or abuses a child, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I trust people will accept my explanation and my apology.”
In the short video clip of last night’s event, Mr Wells said that “facts show you certainly don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship”.
In the footage, he continued his point by claiming children were more likely to be abused or neglected in “non-stable” marriages.
At one point his remarks are drowned out by angry shouts from the audience.
Gay marriage is a divisive issue in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly has rejected three attempts to legalise it and the proposal is again set to go to the floor of Parliament Buildings on Monday.
DUP members have consistently voted against legalisation and have used a contentious Stormont voting mechanism to essentially block it.
This week Prime Minister David Cameron, when challenged on the possible need to rely on DUP votes in Westminster, said he would “never validate” the party’s stance on LGBT issues.
Mr Cameron said he “profoundly disagreed” with those DUP policies.
Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard, who attended last night’s debate, claimed the DUP had a track record of vilifying the gay community.
He welcomed Mr Wells’ apology and acknowledged his recent personal difficulties. But he said the minister still had to resign.
“His disgraceful comments clearly call into question Mr Wells’ responsibility and ability to run a health service for all,” he said.
“Unfortunately this is only the latest in a long line of attacks on the LGBT community by the DUP.”
Alliance’s Employment and Learning Minister at Stormont, Stephen Farry, said he would have expected to be sacked overnight by his party leader if he had issued the comments made by Mr Wells.
“There is absolutely no link between the incidence of abuse and neglect and the sexual orientation of parents,” he said.