Four quit DUP over gay councillor Alison Bennington, says Jim Wells
FOUR DUP members have quit the party over its selection of an openly gay election candidate, Jim Wells has claimed.
The DUP MLA said all four are from the North Antrim area and had been party members for decades.
He said they include retired Free Presbyterian minister Rev James Beggs, who confirmed his resignation to The Irish News last week.
Mr Wells declined to name the others.
It emerges amid silence over a meeting held by the DUP in North Antrim on Wednesday night which is believed to have discussed Alison Bennington's selection.
Ms Bennington became the DUP's first openly gay elected representative earlier this month after securing a council seat in Antrim and Newtownabbey.
Her election is being seen as a significant step for the DUP, a party with a history of hostility towards LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.
But internal tensions have surfaced, with some DUP members publicly criticising the party for choosing her as a candidate.
DUP councillor John Finlay said Mr Paisley – who led the 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign in the late 1970s – would be "turning in his grave".
It's believed a DUP North Antrim meeting on Wednesday evening discussed the area's election result and the selection of Ms Bennington.
DUP Ballymena councillor Audrey Wales declined to comment, saying: "It was a private meeting."
Mr Finlay, a DUP councillor in Ballymoney, also said it was a "private meeting" and declined to speak further.
Former party councillor Sam Hanna confirmed he attended but declined to say who was also there or what was discussed.
Mr Wells said he was "not surprised" to learn of the meeting.
He said North Antrim and Upper Bann "are the two areas where I have received the most number of angry calls" from veteran members "who are just extremely hurt, perplexed and confused by the decision that happened in Newtownabbey".
Mr Wells said he is "aware of four resignations" in North Antrim of "long-standing members" including Rev Beggs, but declined to name the others.
The South Down MLA also said he was aware of one member who is "agonising as to what to do".
Mr Wells, who no longer has the party whip, said he has not resigned as he believes he can "get the party to review this decision" and "go back to its ethos".
LGBT activists have broadly welcomed Ms Bennington's election as a "positive development", while DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson described it as a "good news story".
The party has said it continues to oppose same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland – the only part of Ireland and Britain where it remains outlawed.