Ukip has reacted with fury after a Methodist-run centre cancelled its booking to hold a public meeting – just hours before it was to start.
The party said that the Skainos Centre on the Newtownards Road phoned it on Friday morning to tell the party that it could not use the facilities for a meeting about immigration.
Skainos did not respond to phone calls or emails from the News Letter.
Ukip’s Northern Ireland leader, David McNarry, told the News Letter that an employee at the Methodist-run centre told his office that she had been “instructed” by the centre’s board to cancel the booking because it does not allow political parties to use its facilities.
However, just last year the centre hosted the Green Party conference and a political speech by the then NI21 MLA John McCallister.
Mr McNarry said that the centre had been booked a month ago and that on Thursday Ukip staff had been there with Skainos staff, discussing the layout of the room and how much catering would be needed.
The meeting – which had Ukip MEP Steven Woolfe, the party’s immigration spokesman, as its main speaker – had to be moved at short notice to the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast.
The party denounced the decision as “a blatant attempt to stifle democratic expression of a legitimate national political party representing four million people across this country”.
On Friday afternoon, Mr McNarry and Mr Woolfe went to Skainos in an attempt to speak to staff about what had happened but Mr McNarry said that there was no one there to speak to them.
Mr McNarry said that Mr Woolfe — on his first visit to Northern Ireland — was “fuming”, particularly as the building was partly funded by the European Union and he is a Member of the European Parliament.
“We booked the building over a month ago and have been in constant contact with them,” he said.
“No later than yesterday [Thursday] at 3pm my staff were in Skainos with Skainos staff working out the seating arrangements. Skainos suggested we put the seats in a U-shape and we settled on the amount of tea, coffee and biscuits.”
He accused the centre of “shockingly unprofessional” behaviour and said it had been “most disrespectful” of Ukip.
It is not yet clear whether Ukip will legally challenge the decision — which appears similar to that taken by Ashers Bakery, which cancelled an order for a pro-gay marriage cake and was found to have broken equality laws — but Mr McNarry said that the centre “didn’t have a leg to stand on”.
He said that the party had been “discriminated against”, something which he said was “intolerable” and added that Skainos seemed to “not want a Ukipper about the place”.
Ukip’s estranged former Northern Ireland chairman, Henry Reilly, said that the Skainos decision was “apparently because of my performance on the Nolan TV Show on Wednesday night”, something he said “seems a bit unfair when I am not even part of Ukip now”.