An allegation by DUP leadership contender Jeffrey Donaldson that the UDA threatened some of his team while he was campaigning to become party leader has brought a new focus to the long history of links between loyalist paramilitaries and DUP extremists.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane said the reports were “deeply disturbing”.
“If true, this is a very worrying development that an armed, illegal organisation was involved in influencing the outcome of the leadership contest of the largest party in unionism and a party of government,” he said.
“It represents an attempt to subvert the democratic process and that is totally unacceptable.”
The new leader of the rival Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, described the reports of UDA intimidation in the DUP contest as “shocking”.
“There needs to be a police investigation,” he said. “Nobody should be intimidated at any stage.”
Amid signs of deep divisions in the aftermath of the bitter ratification of ultra-hardliner Edwin Poots as leader, there have also been reports of “bullying and intimidation” by senior members of the DUP, according to the BBC.
The reported aggression came in the wake of the sudden coup late last month against the party’s former leader Arlene Foster.
She was ousted by a group of far-right religious fundamentalists and unionist extremists led by Poots, known for his creationist views and homophobic and sexist comments, who went on to defeat constituency colleague Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 in the leadership contest two weeks ago.
Foster and several did other senior figures including Donaldson, Gavin Robinson, Diane Dodds and Gregory Campbell, left the ratification meeting at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Belfast on Thursday evening before Mr Poots took to the stand to make his inaugural speech as leader.
The DUP now show signs of potentially splitting, with some senior figures understood to have held talks with the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mrs Foster’s home constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone notably said it would continue to “stand firm by her side”. Paul Bell, a senior member of the DUP group in the area, announced he has quit the party. Talking to the media outside the hotel, he said the party will “shed tens of thousands of votes” because of the way Mrs Foster’s departure was handled.
Mrs Foster confirmed she will quit the DUP when she steps down as First Minister, a move which could come as soon as Tuesday, when Poots looks set to appoint a new ministerial team at Stormont, including his nominee for new First Minister.
Mrs Foster had previously said she would stay in the role until the end of June. She branded the DUP “nasty and regressive” and described her removal as “pretty brutal.. even by DUP standards”.
She said she can’t agree with the direction Mr Poots will take the party. “I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow,” she told journalists. “It’s quite nasty, frankly.”
Meanwhile, Poots, speaking to the media for the first time as DUP leader, used the opportunity to make wild allegations about the Dublin government and the post-Brexit Protocol for the north of Ireland.
“They are going to starve Northern Ireland people of medicines no less, cancer drugs and other materials, such as the food that’s on our table,” he declared.
He attacked Fine Gael Tanaiste Leo Varadkar and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who he claimed had inappropriately warned of the potential for border violence in response to the plans to impose a hard border across Ireland.
“That’s a shame on the Irish government that they (did) that, and that belongs to Fine Gael, under the leadership of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. So relationships are really, really bad for the Irish government as a consequence.”
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the Irish language act has now been added to a list of grievances highlighted by protesting loyalists in a broadening wave of unionist dissatisfaction. The protests have their roots in a wave of UDA-orchestrated riots in early April.
In a notice circulated on social media, loyalist organisers of a fresh batch of “protest parades” have urged those taking part to “say no to the Irish language act”.
“Demand that political unionism rules out an Irish language act, in any guise,” the notice said.
It also urges participants to “resist the NI protocol” and “oppose north-south bodies”.
Under a heading “demand policing reform” it says “protest against the unbalanced policing and justice structures and operational two-tier policing”.
It is understood a series of such parades are planned for Bangor, Glengormley and Portadown over the coming week, as well as ‘pop-up parades’ in the north Down and Ards area.