Northern Ireland

DUP advised Belfast Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir not to visit park in loyalist area

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Media captionLord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was heckled by loyalist protesters.

The DUP had advised the Belfast lord mayor not to visit a park where he was later attacked by loyalist protesters.

Four DUP politicians also wrote to the council ahead of the visit, saying it was inappropriate for Sinn Féin's Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to open the park.

Mr Ó Muilleoir and nine police officers sustained minor injuries during violent scuffles in Woodvale park on Tuesday.

DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has since said the mayor "should have the right to go to every part of the city".

Mr Hamilton said he did not think Mr Ó Muilleoir's decision to attend the official re-opening of the park in person was "the wisest" decision, but the minister added that he fully supported "his right to represent the entirety of the city in his capacity as lord mayor".

When asked for his response to the letter, the lord mayor said he would be a "poor first citizen" if he let the DUP decide where he could and could not go.

The letter was signed by the DUP's Brian Kingston, William Humphrey, Frank McCoubrey, Naomi Thompson and by PUP councillor Hugh Smyth.

'Contempt'

It said that the visit of a Sinn Féin member would be inappropriate in light of the "highly sensitive situation over recent months, with the removal of the union flag from (Belfast) City Hall, the blocking of the Twelfth of July parade at Woodvale and the ongoing attacks on our community".

The letter said Sinn Féin had "shown nothing but contempt for the culture, history and traditions of our community".

It further stated: "The event at Woodvale park is to be a family fun day and to have the lord mayor participate in any official capacity would be an affront to many within our community."

One of the five signatories of the letter, Brian Kingston, is also High Sherriff of Belfast.

He told the BBC that the correspondence was sent as a "private and confidential letter" to the council but he also confirmed that he had spoken to Mr Ó Muilleoir personally ahead of the park event.

'Heightened tension'

"In this atmosphere, we advised there was a strong likelihood that the attendance of the Sinn Féin lord mayor would result in protests which would overshadow the event.

"I spoke to the lord mayor myself. I made him aware of our concerns, that there was this heightened tension within the community.

"The lord mayor doesn't have to officiate at every event, it's not possible, there are three civic dignitaries and the duties can be deputised, to the deputy lord mayor or the high sheriff or another council representative, a chair of committee," Mr Kingston said.

He said the DUP did not organise the protests, adding the re-opening of the park and Mr Ó Muilleoir's attendance had been widely advertised.

Mr Kingston told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster: "When Sinn Féin are at the forefront of attacks on the cultures and traditions of the unionist/loyalist community, to then want to wear a chain and come in, to be all smiles...there is genuine anger at that."

"We made our position clear. I regret that the violence occurred, I regret that he was injured, I've said that should not have happened, but we gave our advice and it was sincere advice, that we wanted to avoid this.

"We wanted to avoid these headlines and we did consider that the best thing to do in these circumstances, with the current tension, was to let someone else officiate," Mr Kingston said.

'Violent scenes'

The DUP councillor said people have a "right to protest" and said people in the crowd were also injured when police formed a cordon around the lord major to escort him from the park during the scuffles.

Mr Kingston's senior party colleague, Simon Hamilton, also agreed that the Woodvale park demonstrators had the right to protest but he condemned the "violent scenes" that took place.

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Media captionDUP councillor Brian Kingston called the incident 'wrong'

"It is not a nice image to project of the sort of city that we want to develop, where you have a mayor going into a part of the city, no matter how strongly people feel about issues, and I think they have every right to feel strongly about some of the things that the mayor, in particular, and his party had said and done over the last number of months," Mr Hamilton said.

"They have absolutely every right to feel angry and they have absolutely every right to protest, but to have that protest then manifest itself in violence is not a good image and it not something that I or my party would support."

Mr Ó Muilleoir said Mr Kingston phoned him last week and asked him if he would agree to let the DUP's William Humphrey re-open Woodvale park instead.

The lord mayor told Radio Ulster: "I said I'm obliged to discharge my duties as the first citizen of Belfast. One of those duties yesterday was to open the wonderful Dunville park and to open the wonderful Woodvale park with Alderman Gavin Robinson.

"I would be a poor first citizen if the DUP, or elements within the DUP, were to decide where I could go or where I couldn't go."

He said that he had been advised by police ahead of the event that a "peaceful protest" was planned at Woodvale park.

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