By David Young, PA
Colum Eastwood has urged unionist politicians to call a halt to anti-protocol rallies after a poster of the UUP leader in a noose appeared at the most recent demonstration.
The SDLP leader urged DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and TUV chief Jim Allister to stop attending the controversial gatherings after Friday night’s incident in Lurgan.
Mr Eastwood stressed a need to cool community tensions as he expressed concern about the image of UUP leader Doug Beattie and other threatening incidents linked to the Assembly election campaign, including the burning of campaign posters and an alleged bid to intimidate an SDLP candidate.
Rallies have been taking place across Northern Ireland in recent months outlining unionist and loyalist opposition to the post-Brexit protocol which sees additional checks on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Mr Beattie recently announced his party would no longer attend the events after he claimed they were being used to whip up tensions.
His constituency office in Portadown has since been attacked by vandals, and at Friday night’s rally in Lurgan, a poster portraying his head in a rope noose appeared near the platform.
Mr Donaldson and Mr Allister, who both continue to attend the events, turned the poster away from public view before the speeches commenced.
Mr Eastwood voiced concern at the episode as he formally launched his party’s election campaign at an event in west Belfast on Monday.
“Of course you’re entitled to protest – you’re not entitled to put a poster with a noose around Doug Beattie’s neck,” he said.
“The people who did that have no votes, they couldn’t lace Doug Beattie’s boots, to be honest.”
He also highlighted incidents where West Belfast SDLP candidate Paul Doherty reported being threatened on the Shankill Road and the posters of other candidates were burned.
On the anti-protocol rallies, Mr Eastwood said: “I will call on the unionist leaders who are still going to these protests – protests that are, I think, stirring up a lot of issues that don’t need to be stirred up in this community – I would say to them very clearly, you’re entitled to protest, but with protest, with entitlements and rights, come responsibilities.
“And I think any responsible leader would at this point say there’ll be no more protests, we’ll calm things down, we’ll go into a room and we’ll discuss how we deal with these issues together.”
The SDLP campaign is focused on the cost-of-living crisis in Northern Ireland.
At the event in the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road, Mr Eastwood accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of failing to deliver for people in their time leading the executive.
He was particularly critical of the DUP for its recent move to collapse the powersharing executive in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“I think the lesson out of this is that the only people that you can trust – and I say this to unionists’ leaders – the people that you can trust to work with you, the people you can trust to build a better society with you, are people like the people in this room, and your neighbours, because Boris Johnson is not going to be there when all these protests are over,” he said.
“And some of the rabble rousers who are shouting at the back of lorries and winding young people up will not be there when this election is over either.
“And at some point, we’re going to have to come back together and work the common ground, work together, get these institutions up and deal with the issues that really matter.
“Because whilst Jeffrey Donaldson was walking away, people’s bills were going through the roof, and I’m sick of knocking doors in places like Derry and people are answering the door with their coats on.
“People can’t even afford to turn the heating on, and they’re worried about whether they can put food on the table.”
Among those who attended Monday morning’s launch event was SDLP veteran Joe Hendron, 30 years on from his famous victory in the Westminster election in West Belfast.