The Democratic Unionist Party says it has made a formal complaint against an academic who wrote an email claiming the DUP may have been responsible for gay youngsters killing themselves.

The contents of the email were quoted in a robust exchange between Dr Graham Ellison of Queen’s University Belfast and DUP Assembly Member Jim Wells during a meeting of Stormont’s justice committee on plans to ban prostitution in Northern Ireland.

Dr Ellison had been giving evidence on a bill sponsored by the DUP’s Fermanagh/South Tyrone Assembly Member Lord Morrow which would make it a criminal offence to pay for sex.

Mr Wells said he had seen an email from Dr Ellison to Gunilla Ekberg, an ex-special adviser with the Swedish Government, who had previously given evidence to the committee.

In the email, Dr Ellison said: “Why have you hooked yourself up to that lot in the DUP? Have you any idea what they stand for in terms of social issues around women’s rights; women’s reproductive rights issues and so forth?

“In terms of gay and lesbian politics that I have an interest in, they are one of the most repressive and socially backward parties you could imagine.”

The email said: “Who knows how many gays and lesbian young people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide because of this bloody party.

“I could also remember not long ago, five or six years, that the party, i.e. the DUP, was claiming that rape within marriage was impossible. They are simply latching onto this idea about sex that it is grounded in biblical teaching and not in feminist theory.”

Dr Ellison, who apologised to the committee for the tone of the email, told Good Morning Ulster on Friday: “It wasn’t particularly pleasant to have private correspondence that was sent to someone else actually read out in a public meeting. There is a privacy issue here.

“I wasn’t told how he (Mr Wells) obtained this or indeed who gave it to him, but to say that I was shocked would be an understatement.”

Dr Ellison said of the email: “I suppose my point was to highlight that in my opinion her views as a radical feminist and those of the DUP were worlds apart. And I thought there was a public interest issue in exploring those issues with her.”

The DUP is known for its public statements against LGBT equality. DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots unsuccessfully fought against extending adoption rights to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland and remains in favour of maintaining restrictions on gay men donating blood in the province.