When we hear stories about the police in faraway states poking their noses - or truncheons - into election campaigns, we balk. The cops, we believe, have no business using either pressure or threats against candidates standing for election. For the police to monitor what candidates say, to keep a check on the political positions they put forward and tell them off if their positions are ‘wrong’, is an intolerable intervention by the armed wing of the state into what ought to be a free and open debate between aspiring political representatives and the public.
Well, it’s no longer only tinpot nations overseas where the police barge into the electoral arena. It has now happened on Britain. This week. Ahead of the General Election on 7 May. The police have announced that they are investigating one of the people campaigning for a seat, not for anything he did, not for any crime against a person or property, but for something he said, for a political position he put forward during an election debate.
The man in question is Jim Wells, health minister for Northern Ireland and a leading member of the right-wing, socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party. Wells is the DUP candidate for South Down on 7 May. At the end of last week, at a hustings event at which he sought to drum up support, Wells offered his views on gay marriage and gay parenting. He said: ‘You don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That a child is far more likely to be abused and neglected.’ Outrage ensued, and Wells quickly backtracked. He said he wasn’t talking about all homosexual relationships but about ‘unstable relationships’. That wasn’t enough and eventually he publicly apologised, as is the fashion today, for the ‘offence and deep concern’ his comments caused. But it gets worse. The police in Northern Ireland have now announced that they are investigating his comments.
After receiving complaints from members of the public about ‘hate speech’, the police say they are ‘investigating comments made by Mr Wells’. They have even visited the venue where the hustings debate was held - St Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick - to gather evidence and speak to concerned citizens.