‘Unionist town’ protest during Sinn Fein event in Ballynahinch

‘Unionist town’ protest during Sinn Fein event in Ballynahinch

13 March 2019

A ROW has erupted after a loyalist and unionist protest against a Sinn Fein election event in Ballynahinch last weekend.

Sinn Fein held a campaign event for Rowallane candidate Marianne Cleary in the town’s square last Sunday afternoon ahead of the forthcoming local government elections, with unionists arranging a counter protest.

Republicans hope to secure a seat in Rowallane area for the first time when voters go to the polls on May 2 in an area where the five seats are currently in the possession of the DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance.

Sinn Fein have accused South Down DUP MLA Jim Wells, as well as other unionists, of travelling to Ballynahinch to shout abuse at party representatives and members of the local community.

The party is adamant that it will not be deterred by Mr Wells or anyone else to bring Sinn Fein’s message to voters in Rowallane.

Describing Ballynahinch as a “unionist town” Mr Wells said the weekend protest was “effective and orderly” and suggested Republicans were “basically wasting their time in the town”.

Sinn Fein’s South Down MP, Chris Hazzard — who was at the Ballynahinch event — criticised Mr Wells for attempting to shout down the election rally, claiming that he and other DUP and UUP elected representatives had travelled from as far away as Lisburn and Castlereagh to shout abuse at Sinn Fein representatives and members of the local community.

Mr Hazzard continued: “Marianne Cleary is aiming to make history in this year’s local government election by becoming the first ever woman elected to Newry, Mourne and Down Council for the Rowallane area. With that in mind, Sinn Féin gathered in Ballynahinch last Sunday to hold an election rally before canvassing local residents.

“Despite the barrage of sectarian abuse and personal vitriol that was aimed at Marianne, it was encouraging to receive such a warm reception from the local community on our canvass where our message of equality, rights and Irish unity was well received.”

His party colleague, Mournes  councillor Willie Clarke, also condemned Mr Wells and other unionist representatives who took part in the protest.

He described the “intolerance” by unionist and loyalist groups as an “attack on democracy” and said the right to free assembly and free speech was essential principle of a democratic process.

Cllr Clarke was also critical of various comments posted on social media platforms over the past number of days which, he claimed, were designed to “demonise and dehumanise” Republican and Nationalist residents.

He added: “Sinn Féin will not be deterred by these unionist bully boy tactics. The days of Republicans and Nationalists being denied rights in any part of the North of Ireland are over.”

Mr Wells said it was his understanding that everyone who took part in the protest co-operated fully with the PSNI and everything passed off peacefully and without incident.

He also claimed that the only words exchanged between himself and Sinn Fein members were “light hearted” and about Brexit.

The DUP man continued: “In 1985, a large part of Ballynahinch Main Street was destroyed as a result of an IRA bomb. Living in the town are the widows and orphans of brave members of the security forces who died at the hand of Republican terrorists.

“It was extremely offensive for Sinn Fein to organise a public rally in the town. There are many parts of South Down where they could have held their meeting, but they have little or no support in Ballynahinch. 

“Local residents had every right to organise an event to protest against the presence of Sinn Fein and point out the fact that they had acted as supporters, spokesmen and apologists for a murder campaign which led to the death of over 90 people in South Down.”

Mr Wells said while he may have a right to hold a DUP rally in Kilcoo, Castlewellan or Ballyhornan, he had to accept that exercising that right would cause offence to local residents. He explained he would opt for a town or village where this would not happen.

“I understand that Sinn Fein intend to move on to have rallies in Saintfield and Crossgar, towns where again they have little or no support. These events will cause further offence,” he added.

Rowallane Alliance councillor Patrick Brown said the DUP’s involvement in the weekend protest demonstrated the party’s “complete lack of political nous and narrow-minded sectarian agenda.”

He added: “While I acknowledge that Sinn Fein are undoubtedly targeting my seat in Rowallane as their main electoral priority, given that I narrowly won the seat ahead of them in 2014, I believe strongly in the right to open and respectful debate of political views. The sectarian counter protest led by local DUP representatives on Sunday was anything but.”