Two unionist figures have said DUP backers or party members voiced discomfort and made “offensive” remarks about the party’s newly-arrived lesbian candidate during the recent council election campaign.
Adrian Cochrane-Watson, a former UUP MLA, and Steve Aiken, current UUP MLA for South Antrim, made the claims to the News Letter as votes were being totted up for the new Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
Among the DUP’s 14 successful candidates for the council was Alison Bennington, the first openly gay politician the DUP has ever had.
There had been disquiet from some traditionalist DUP quarters about her selection.
Mr Cochrane-Watson (who was unable to secure his election as an independent council candidate) said he was not in favour of gay marriage, but has “absolutely no difficulty with her sexuality” and wishes her “every success”.
But when it comes to the DUP, “go to them personally, go to them individually today and they’re all spitting – let’s be honest, the bigotry and so on is infamous within the DUP”.
He added: “I’m sure an awful lot of them are finding it very hard to stomach. I sat in Stormont with them. I sat in council chambers with them...
“Many of them have made comments to me as well, how shocked and uncomfortable they are.
“Of course, none of them will ever break breath about it to you.
“But I mean these are people who, their political career is built on bashing the Bible and telling us how to live.
“You’re telling me they’re just going to change overnight and say ‘this is wonderful’?”
He said the people raising concerns with him included “sitting councillors, no later than yesterday [Thursday]... outside the polling stations”.
Meanwhile Mr Aiken said he hoped councillor Bennington’s victory would “start changing some of the narrow-minded attitudes within that party”, and that he had already tried to sound her out about switching to the Ulster Unionists.
“She said she was fully supportive of the DUP,” said Mr Aiken. “I think she said it with a straight face.”
Mr Aiken also said: “If some of the members of her party openly talk about her in the way they talk to me about her, we will gladly ask her to come and join our party. Because I think they need to change their attitudes significantly.”
Asked what comments he had in mind, and who said them, Mr Aiken would not repeat the remarks.
He said: “I would find them quite offensive.”
Pressed over who made the remarks, he said whilst he cannot be certain they were in fact DUP members: “I’d say they were people who were fairly close to the DUP... they openly identified themselves with the DUP. It’d have said they were probably DUP canvassers, at least some of them.
“They very clearly identified themselves to me as DUP supporters. And the language they were using I didn’t think was particularly appropriate.”
When Mr Aiken and Mr Cochrane-Watson’s accounts were put to Trevor Clarke, DUP MLA for South Antrim, he said: “I can’t speak for what others perceive to have found on the doors.”
He said that on the doorsteps, only a “negligible” number of voters voiced an opinion on the subject.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s a lifestyle choice that I wouldn’t endorse personally. That’s a private matter for the individual.
“I have not heard one member of the public or indeed an elected member using offensive language towards the candidate. I think it’d be inappropriate.”
As to the claim of “bigotry” in the DUP, he said: “I’ve heard political opponents referring to us as bigots in the past. But I have to say, thousands of people came out and voted for the DUP in Thursday’s election.
“And we have had a large mandate in the past, and continue to maintain a very large mandate for the people in Northern Ireland. So to label us all bigots I think’s an unfair slander towards us as individuals, and indeed to the party in itself.”
When it comes to the Alliance Party’s view of the election of Ms Bennington for the DUP, Naomi Long told the News Letter: “I’m not going to dismiss it as a nothing. But at the same time I’m going to say this: it shouldn’t be an issue. Someone’s sexuality shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to an election.
“She’s not elected simply as ‘a gay candidate’.
“And it dismisses I think her and her ability to pigeonhole her in that way.
“Undoubtely, I think it’ll be a challenge for the DUP. And I hope it’s one they live up to.”
Danny Kinahan, on the liberal wing of the UUP, meanwhile said: “I’m pleased for her and hope that’s going to cause the DUP to have a good look at themselves. If we’re fit to be part of the Union, we should be respecting the values that are shared with the rest of the Union.”