Police have been called in after a series of threatening messages were sent to UUP figures, including one which explicitly referred to a meeting involving a notorious UDA faction which told the party not to challenge Nigel Dodds.
News of the threats first emerged on The View on Thursday night when UUP leader was attempting to clarify his comments to the News Letter last Saturday in which he said that his party would stand candidates in all 18 constituencies in next month’s general election.
The interview also saw Mr Aiken row back on his initial pledge. Yesterday he stayed silent about the issue.
Mr Aiken told The View: “This evening we’ve been receiving threats coming through to members of the Ulster Unionist Party and their staff...this undermines the entire principle of democracy”
Last night a UUP spokesperson said: “Our headquarters has received a number of phone calls of a threatening nature in relation to North Belfast and we have informed the PSNI of that.”
The News Letter spoke to two UUP politicians, one a senior party figure, who said that separately there had been clear intimidation involving loyalist paramilitaries who were pressurising individual UUP members not to stand as the candidate in North Belfast, where that could cost Mr Dodds his seat.
Last night Mr Dodds condemned the “deplorable” threats, making clear that those doing so were acting without his support.
One of the messages sent to a senior UUP figure and seen by this newspaper explicitly referred to a “big meeting of loyalists” which had included South East Antrim UDA.
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The message said that 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” and that “if the DUP lose it, they will be responsible”.
The senior UUP source said that other party members had been receiving messages and phone calls “along the same lines”.
Last night veteran UUP councillor Frazer Agnew told Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme: “It’s absolutely disgraceful that people have to resort to that sort of activity.” The Newtownabbey councillor said that as well as being wrong the threats were “counterproductive” because if Mr Aiken now backs down and decides not to stand a candidate it will seem that those behind the intimidation have won.
Mr Agnew was one of the signatories to an open letter of North Belfast unionists this week which urged Mr Aiken to reconsider his position. Among those signing the letter were PUP leader Billy Hutchinson and DUP councillor Dean McCullough, although the fact he is a DUP politician was not mentioned and he was instead described as chairman of Rathcoole Neighbourhood Renewal, a publicly-funded cross-party group involving everyone from Sinn Féin to the UUP.
Mr Agnew said it was “naive” of Mr Aiken to pledge to stand in all 18 seats and said of the incoming leader: “He’s only been in the party a handful of years”.
The veteran unionist said he feared that “the party is slowly leaving me at the moment”.
It is understood that senior UUP figures are meeting this weekend to decide on whether to back Mr Aiken’s stance or agree a pact with the DUP.
Mr Dodds’ seat is the most vulnerable if the UUP does not agree a pact. Although the DUP’s deputy leader is widely respected at Westminster and is one of the DUP’s most capable figures, his majority has been shrinking in North Belfast as demographic changes, a shrinking unionist vote and a consolidation of the nationalist vote behind Sinn Fein has left him with a majority of just over 2,000.
He is facing a challenge from the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Belfast, John Finucane, who is being positioned as a more moderate and modern republican than past candidates such as former IRA bomber Gerry Kelly.
In a statement last night, Mr Dodds said that it was “essential that there is respect on all sides for the democratic process”.
The former Stormont Finance Minister said: “There have been some reports of intimidation and threats issued towards members and activists from the UUP.
“Any such incidents are deplorable and must be totally condemned. The only appropriate way to express your views and the most effective way to send a message in our society is through the ballot box.
“For our part the DUP has a positive plan for Northern Ireland to deliver more for everyone building on the extra billions of investment we have already delivered in the past two years for health and education, roads and broadband.
“We will be putting forward that clear message over the coming weeks.”
At the time of going to press, the PSNI had not responded to a request for comment.
The PSNI’s Belfast District Commander, Chief Superintendent Jonathan Roberts, said: “Police received a report yesterday morning (Friday 1st November) about telephone calls received by staff in an office in the Belmont Road area of east Belfast.
“Some of these calls have been described as abusive and threatening in nature.
“Enquiries are ongoing.”