Northern Ireland news

Councillor and Free Presbyterian minister critical of DUP's decision to select openly gay election candidate Alison Bennington

Ballymena-based Free Presbyterian minister Reverend John Greer

A Free Presbyterian minister has criticised the DUP's decision to select openly gay election candidate Alison Bennington.

Ms Bennington, whose candidacy was revealed last month by The Irish News, was elected to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council last week but according to Ballymena-based Rev John Greer, her selection means Christians are being "conditioned into thinking that things that were once reprobated are now acceptable... such as sodomy".

A video of his April 21 sermon has emerged, as well as a letter from DUP Mid and East Antrim councillor John Finlay in which he claimed the decision to stand a gay candidate would have DUP and Free Presbyterian Church founder Ian Paisley "turning in his grave".

Ms Bennington's election was welcomed by senior DUP figures but some representatives and members have been outspoken on the issue.

Rev Greer described Ms Bennington's candidacy as part of an "agenda".

"Now we have the DUP putting up their candidate, who is an out-and-out lesbian, that's what I mean," he said.

Rev Greer told the BBC that his remarks were part of a wider sermon and that the message he was preaching was "not specifically crafted to deal with that issue", but rather, "commentary on how Christians should be living".

He said it was not his place to dictate to the DUP about its choice of candidates.

But he added: "If a party which once took a decision begins to move away from it, it's my duty as a Christian minister to highlight that."

Rev Greer said the Bible was his "final authority" and the Free Presbyterian Church had issued a statement ahead of the council elections criticising all political parties that attempted to "normalise and promote marital and sexual relationships that are in contravention of the clear teaching of scripture".

Historically the DUP has been vociferously opposed to homosexuality, with Mr Paisley once fronting a 'Save Ulster From Sodomy' campaign.

Last night a party spokesman insisted that it remains committed to the "current definition of marriage".

Meanwhile, in his letter to DUP party officers ahead of last week's election, Ballymoney councillor Mr Finlay said the selection of Ms Bennington was "foolish" and sent "confusing signals to our support base".

A former DUP party officer, he said he wanted to place on record his "deep concern" about the decision and claimed many within the party were unaware of Ms Bennington's selection until the launch of the local government manifesto, where he said "she was given a prominent role”.

"The candidate in question, Ms Alison Bennington, is openly gay – she has, apparently, previously indicated that she is in favour of same-sex marriage through a post on her Facebook page," he wrote.

“This sends out, at best, confusing signals to our support base which has consistently welcomed our strong stand on LGBT issues."

Mr Finlay claimed the decision would cost the DUP votes.

"I can feel the palpable sense of anger on the doorsteps and in various messages I have been receiving," he said.

The councillor, who last year organised a rally in support of Ian Paisley junior after the North Antrim MP was handed a Westminster suspension for not declaring luxury holidays to Sri Lanka ahead of lobbying on the government's behalf, said he was disappointed that party officers who are also committed Christians "remained ominously silent".

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