A group closely affiliated to the UDA has moved to rebut suggestions that it is telling its supporters to vote for the DUP.
The Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), which provides political advice to the paramilitary group, came in for criticism from some loyalists after distributing a mock ballot paper on which the first preference vote was beside a DUP candidate.
The ballot paper, part of its ‘register, vote, transfer’ campaign to increase turnout in loyalist areas where as little as 30 per cent of residents vote, then included votes for other pro-Union candidates.
However, in a joint interview with the News Letter, three members of the UPRG – Colin Halliday from south Belfast, Alan Price from east Belfast and John Howcroft from north Belfast – said that the mock ballot paper had been misinterpreted.
Mr Howcroft said that the UPRG was a “lobby group” which did not back any one party.
Mr Price said it was a coincidence that the flyer had a ‘1’ beside the DUP: “What we’re telling people isn’t ‘vote DUP 1’, as you saw on the flyer; it’s to vote for all the unionist candidates in order of your preference.”
Mr Halliday added: “We’re not endorsing the DUP.”
Mr Price said the drive was in part educational: “The number of people within the loyalist community who don’t actually understand the mechanics of the STV [single transferable vote] system – even seasoned people who have voted all their lives – would maybe vote 1, 2, 3 DUP and then stop. What we’re telling them is: carry on, give everybody a chance to maximise unionist representation.
“And likewise, if there’s a lot of anti-DUP sentiment out there among loyalism, especially during the flag protests and things...even if you don’t like the DUP, given them a lower preference; use them as a safety net to catch your vote.”
Mr Price said there had been “a huge awakening about the importance of politics within loyalism, something which he linked to the restriction on the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall.
Mr Howcroft said that in some cases there were “economic reasons” behind why some of those in loyalist areas do not register to vote because debt agencies could use the electoral register to locate debtors. But he said that the UPRG had been able to register some people with an address at a community centre.
In the 2011 council elections, several UPRG members stood as independent candidates.
One, Paul Clissold, stood in Banbridge but Colin Halliday explained that he chose to stand aside in case it could have seen a seat go to a nationalist. He said: “We talked to the unionist parties and we pulled Paul out to give them a free run — with the agreement that they would ensure they looked after our needs, and they do that.”
He added: “The UPRG is a lobby group; we find that we get more sway and power by lobbying than by actually standing.”
He said there were debates within the group about contesting elections but said that some of its members are already standing for the DUP and UUP. Mr Howcroft warned that there was an “increasingly restless undergrowth within loyalist communities”.