Representatives of the unionist paramilitary UDA have openly called for a vote for the DUP to ensure “no abstentionist MPs [Sinn Féin] are elected, nor their cohorts in the SDLP”.
The Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), which speaks for the UDA, also attacked the anti-Brexit Alliance Party, who they said are “not Unionists and do not deserve a vote”, and backed Ulster Unionist Tom Elliot against Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
The announcement by the UDA of its endorsements received little media attention, but their actions in erecting offensive and threatening banners has been the main story of the election campaign so far in the Six Counties. Their main target has been Sinn Féin’s John Finucane Mr Finucane, the son of assassinated defence lawyer Pat Finucane, who is in a close battle in north Belfast against DUP ‘arch Brexiteer’ Nigel Dodds.
Speaking to the North Belfast News, Mr Finucane has said he will not be deterred by “gutter politics”.
“The banners are part of a very coordinated and sophisticated campaign designed to intimidate me, denigrate my family and my father’s memory and designed to deter me,” he said.
“It is gutter politics of the worst kind and not something I am allowing to distract and deter me. I remain focused on delivering for North Belfast.”
There have also been questions over how a story about Mr Finucane getting “caught short” in Belfast city centre in June very unusually emerged during the current Westminster general election campaign.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Ms O’Neill questioned the circumstances of how the story was published. “I think given that it happened a number of months ago it is very convenient that it has been leaked two weeks out from an election,” she said.
Mr Finucane said despite everything his party had been running “a very positive campaign” by looking to the future for “delivering better” for North Belfast. He said it is an an area that has been left behind and has many challenges.
“I want to be an MP to get stuck into those challenges,” he said.
Mr Finucane praised remarks by leading victims’ campaigner Alan McBride, who lost his wife in the Shankill bomb, urging all political parties to be mindful of victims at election time.
“Alan McBride is one of the most impressive people that I have met. He is considerate and well-measured,” said Mr Finucane. “He has also called out the banners which are hurtful to those families who lost loved ones in the Shankill which I agree with.
“He also called out the DUP hypocrisy on this issue – a party which has convicted drug dealers canvassing for them, engages with active loyalist paramilitaries connected with offences up to and including murder this year. Alan has been a strong and reasonable voice in this debate and I welcome his comments.”
Sinn Féin’s long-standing abstentionism policy at Westminster has been raised in connection with Brexit, but Mr Finucane is adamant protection for the people of Ireland will not come from the House of Commons.
“The DUP got spectacularly thrown under the bus and showed that no matter what your constitutional aspirations are, the British government simply does not care if you live in this part of the world,” he said.
“Those who want to protect their European identity or voted to Remain – the protection is never coming from the green benches of Westminster. The protection comes from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Simon Coveney and the EU 27 and in America, supported by Sinn Féin.”
Mr Finucane pointed out that his main opponent was part of the controversial ‘Vote Leave’ campaign.
“He has been the DUP head at Westminster and is proud of his Brexit record,” he said. “The two defining political moments in my lifetime have been the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit and Nigel Dodds is on the wrong side of history in both of those. He continues to be opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and he continues to champion Brexit which goes against the majority of people’s views in North Belfast which is hopefully reflected on December 12.”
Looking at local issues affecting North Belfast, the Sinn Féin candidate wants to address food banks, the mental health crisis, housing and anti-social behaviour, amongst others.
“In North Belfast, we have food banks, a mental health crisis, reliance on prescription drugs, very toxic legacy from the conflict, suicide crisis particularly amongst our young people.
“I don’t want to refight old battles or use the past to poke my neighbour in the eye. People want to move forward with political leadership that can do just that.”
He also said the DUP’s record on housing “is despicable”.
“They object to housing for reasons that can be interpreted as nothing short of sectarian,” he said. “This is the brand of politics I think North Belfast wants to turn its back on. Housing is a right that is founded and based on need and nothing to do with religion, who you vote for or ethnicity.”
* In other election news, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has defended her party not standing aside in support of another anti-Brexit candidate in those constituencies where a tight race is expected. “The issue of Brexit is bigger than the Alliance Party but looking at each constituency I don’t see better candidates than those being put forward by the Alliance Party,” she said.
* Sinn Féin has rejected criticism of its decision to deliver a radio election broadcast entirely in the Irish language. The broadcast aired on BBC Radio Ulster on Thursday morning.
Although not unusual in the 26 Counties, it’s the first time a party election broadcast has been entirely in Irish in the Six Counties. Former Belfast councillor Niall O Donnghaile described it as “a positive step forward” and that Sinn Féin had taken the opportunity “to engage with people who want to live their lives with Irish”.
* New party Aontú has seen its first election broadcast in its first general election campaign. Party candidates accused both Sinn Féin and the SDLP of “abandoning the principle of self-determination” and “tearing up the proclamation of the republic” by supporting the actions of the Westminster parliament in legalising abortion in the north of Ireland.
Party leader Peadar Tóibín told viewers that the party believes in “a united Ireland bult on economic justice, where Catholic, Protestant and dissenter can prosper and flourish together”.
* The British Conservative Party are running four candidates in the north of Ireland in the Westminster election. Tory chairman James Cleverly and Britain’s Direct Ruler in Ireland, Julian Smith, attended a manifesto launch this week
Cleverly said the Tories’ “commitment” to the north of Ireland is “guaranteed” by the fact they are running candidates. Pledges in the manifesto include a more modern unionism, getting the Stormont Assembly back up and running, and implementing Brexit.