A decision by the Ulster Unionist Party to stand aside in North Belfast following loyalist threats of violence has been condemned, despite the insistence of the party’s new leader Steve Aiken that the move was not connected to the threats.
The UUP has also refused to confirm if it will field candidates in south or east Belfast, where DUP seats are also in jeopardy, although the party has said it is “under real pressure” in those constituencies.
A police investigation was launched last week after threats were made to party members and staff – including some from the loyalist paramilitary UDA – over the party’s refusal to form an electoral pact with the more hardline DUP in North Belfast.
Aiken, whose official election as new party leader is taking place this weekend, had said the UUP would field candidates in all 18 of the North’s constituencies. However, that was seen to changed after party staff received threats by text and phone.
Mr Aiken said that “in a modern democracy, no-one should have to face threats, intimidation or coercion of any sort because of their involvement in the democratic process”.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly called on the DUP to “stand against” the threats. He noted that the DUP had held recent meetings with loyalist representatives, including the UDA.
“Instead of the DUP cosying up to these group for electoral pacts, they should unequivocally condemn these threats and call for these groups to disband immediately.”
He also called on the UDA to disband.
“This group has recently been involved in murder, extortion, threats and intimidation,” he said. “This is a time for political leadership - people should be free to campaign politically without fear of intimidation. These dangerous and reckless threats are an attack on the whole democratic process and on freedom of expression.”
A loyalist banner on the Shankill Road attacking Sinn Féin candidate in north Belfast, John Finucane, has added to tension. Mr Finucane’s father, human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, was murdered by a Shankill-based UDA gang acting in collusion with Crown Force agents in 1989.
The banner targeting the party’s Westminster candidate appeared on the wall of an apartment block on the Lower Shankill early on Monday morning.
The poster also features a picture of former republican prisoner Sean Kelly, who was badly injured when a 1993 bomb attack directed at the UDA leadership exploded prematurely in unexplained circumstances.
Ten people were killed in the tragedy: IRA Volunteer Thomas Begley, a UDA member and eight Protestant civilians.
The bomb attack has surfaced as a key element of a DUP/UDA campaign to defeat Mr Finucane. In an apparent sign of desperation, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson even attempted to link the attack to the nationalist SDLP, which has now also declined to contest the constituency.
Over the past two weeks, loyalists have held a number of meetings from which the media have been mainly excluded to discuss the campaign. The meetings, which have included senior figures from various loyalist paramilitary factions took place in Belfast and Antrim, and featured DUP MPs including Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson.
Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, who has orchestrated some of the meetings, said energy is “fizzing” among unionists over the potential for EU regulatory checks at Larne seaport, which he has described as a “sea border”.
“We will not sit idly by and allow Boris Johnson’s betrayal act to drive Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into an economic united Ireland,” he declared.