Loyalist paramilitaries have issued threats against the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in a bid to force it to withdraw from the Westminster election in north Belfast against Nigel Dodds, the Deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
UUP leader-elect Steve Aiken (pictured, left) has confirmed that threats had been made against party staff.
Mr Aiken is set to become leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on November 9, but he is already at the centre of a furore over demands by the DUP and their loyalist supporters that the UUP not run a candidate against Dodds (pictured, right).
Mr Aiken has previously said his party will run candidates in all 18 constituencies in protest at the DUP’s position on Brexit. But he then appeared to change his mind, refusing to repeat the policy when questioned on BBC’s The View programme. His sudden change of heart has been blamed on pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, the DUP and other unionist hardliners.
Aiken, although a former British navy commander, appeared shaken by the threats which he said undermined “the entire principle of democracy”.
The DUP has condemned the threats, which are said to have come from the south-east Antrim UDA. But DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson was also critical of the UUP for proposing “a unionist dogfight” in the middle of an election he claimed is “the most important in decades”.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has added pressure on their once arch-rivals by announcing the party will not be contesting the Fermanagh South Tyrone constituency, a move which could help the UUP regain their seat there. She declared her party “believes in unionist co-operation”.
The UUP has been in decline in recent years following election pacts with the DUP, leading it to be displaced as the party of moderate unionism by the Alliance Party, particularly among younger voters.
Nevertheless the DUP has pursued the renewal of an arrangement which helped Dodds secure a narrow majority over Sinn Féin’s John Finucane in 2017. Since his re-election, the DUP hardliner has been blamed in both Ireland and Britain for leading unionist attempts to reinforce the partition of Ireland via Brexit, only to see the opportunity slip away in recent weeks with the announcement of a fresh election.
Loyalists and unionists in north Belfast have written an open letter stating the UUP should again withdraw, to avoid handing Sinn Féin an opportunity to win a seat in the ‘cockpit’ constituency of north Belfast.
But the UUP leader has been campaigning for unionists to recognise the scale of the DUP’s failure at Westminster. Despite holding the critical balance of power throughout the last two years of Brexit negotiations, DUP intransigence saw it emerge without securing a hard border through Ireland. Under the latest deal, in a blow to unionists, checks are to be introduced on vehicles at seaports in Belfast and Larne.
Mr Aiken has said his party will run candidates in all constituencies “because we cannot in all right turn round and say to the people of Northern Ireland: ‘Vote for a pact with the DUP, support the DUP - the party who put a border down the Irish Sea.”’
The new loyalist threats have been linked to a high profile meeting of paramilitaries last month.
One of the messages sent to a senior UUP figure referred to this meeting and said it had been agreed that “all members of the UUP and its leadership are to be told they are not to be standing a candidate in North Belfast”. It added that if Dodds loses his seat, the UUP “will be held responsible”. Other messages were described as being in a similar vein.
A PSNI spokesperson said they had received a report about “abusive and threatening” telephone calls and messages received by staff at the UUP office in east Belfast. “Enquiries are ongoing,” they said, without further comment.