Northern Ireland's Health Minister has apologised for comments in which he appeared to draw a link between gay marriage and child abuse.
Democratic Unionist Jim Wells faced a storm of criticism last night when video footage taken from the event in the South Down constituency was posted on social media.
His contentious remarks appeared to suggest a child was at more risk of abuse or neglect if brought up in a homosexual relationship, because such marriages were less stable.
In a short video clip of last night's event, Mr Wells said that "facts show you certainly don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship”.
In the footage, he continued his point by claiming children were more likely to be abused or neglected in "non-stable" marriages.
At one point his remarks were drowned out by angry shouts from the audience.
Mr Wells, who is a South Down Assembly Member and is standing for election in the Westminster poll, apologised today for the any offence caused.
He said: “I have listened to a recording of the relevant part of the debate.
"I accept that one line of what I said caused offence and deep concern amongst members of the audience and beyond. I regret having wrongly made that remark about abuse and I'm sorry those words were uttered. The comment did not reflect my view nor that of my party."
The Stormont Health Minister, whose wife Grace is in hospital after suffering two strokes, said he was not fully focused on the debate.
"The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for me personally," he said.
"I had just come from a hospital visit and my focus was not on the debate. Indeed, during the event I received several messages from the hospital."
He added: "Within seconds of realising this error, I asked the chairman to let me back in and twice corrected my remarks before the debate moved on. This clarification has been confirmed by the journalists present at the event. Partial clips, spin and selective reporting regrettably miss this.
"The neglect or abuse of children is awful and happens in unstable relationships whether they are heterosexual or homosexual. I make no distinction between anyone who neglects or abuses a child, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"I trust people will accept my explanation and my apology."
Gay marriage is a divisive issue in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly has rejected three attempts to legalise it and the proposal is again set to go to the floor of Parliament Buildings on Monday.
DUP members have consistently voted against legalisation and have used a contentious Stormont voting mechanism to essentially block it.
Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard, who attended last night's debate in Downpatrick, claimed the DUP had a track record of vilifying the gay community.
He welcomed Mr Wells' apology and acknowledged his recent personal difficulties. But he said the minister still had to resign.
"His disgraceful comments clearly call into question Mr Wells' responsibility and ability to run a health service for all," he said.
"Unfortunately this is only the latest in a long line of attacks on the LGBT community by the DUP."
GENERAL ELECTION 2015
- When Is The Election And How Do I Vote?
- 10 Tools To Help You Decide Who To Vote For
- 100 Facts About The General Election
Alliance's Employment and Learning Minister at Stormont, Stephen Farry, said he would have expected to be sacked overnight by his party leader if he had issued the comments made by Mr Wells.
"There is absolutely no link between the incidence of abuse and neglect and the sexual orientation of parents," he said.
"Nor indeed, is there any difference between two-parent and single-parent households.
"Alliance will be looking to raise this matter with Assembly officials and ask them to investigate whether he has broken any Assembly rules.
"His credibility in office has been seriously undermined by these remarks."
Despite such calls for Wells to resign, DUP leader Peter Robinson insisted he would not be forced out.
According to Belfast Live, he said: "On a better day Jim would never have made such a comment.
"He's been under pressure with his wife in hospital. As soon as he made the comment he knew he should not have said it.
"He has put out a very sincere and fulsome apology and I think people should give him a break.
"It is not our view and never will be our view."