Northern Ireland news

DUP couple quit party following gay councillor Alison Bennington's election

DUP councillor Alison Bennington at the election count earlier this month, and right, former party councillor Martin Clarke
Brendan Hughes

A DUP veteran who has quit the party following an openly gay candidate's election says his "issue is with the leadership and the direction it's going".

Martin Clarke, a former DUP councillor in Ballymena, yesterday publicly confirmed that he and his wife Margaret have resigned.

Four DUP members are understood to have quit the party in the Antrim area following the selection of Alison Bennington.

She became the DUP's first openly gay elected representative 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 party founder Ian Paisley – who led the 'Save Ulster from Sodomy' campaign in the late 1970s – would be "turning in his grave".

Mr Clarke was a councillor in Ballymena for almost four decades before standing down in 2015.

The 69-year-old and his wife, also aged 69, resigned shortly after this month's council elections.

He told The Irish News the decision to leave the DUP was due to "a number of issues" but acknowledged the selection of a gay candidate was "one of the issues".

"I don't wish to make any comment on my resignation from the party other than I have no issue with the party on a local basis here in Ballymena and the surrounding area," he said.

"My issue is with the leadership and the direction it's going."

The couple were involved in the DUP's Mid Antrim branch, which is part of the North Antrim constituency association.

"It was a very hard decision to make after being there for so long," Mr Clarke said.

But he added: "We're definitely not joining any other political party and we have made that clear to the branch."

The Clarkes are understood to be among the four DUP members that party MLA Jim Wells claimed earlier this week have resigned following Ms Bennington's selection.

Another is retired Free Presbyterian minister Rev James Beggs, who confirmed his resignation to The Irish News last week.

Rev Beggs, who is the late Ian Paisley's brother-in-law, branded the DUP's choice of an openly gay election candidate "contrary to the word of God".

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.

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