Democratic Unionist party voters out cheering an Orange Order parade as it passed Carrickfergus Castle at the weekend welcomed any electoral pact with Theresa May that would prevent Sinn Féin or Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, from obtaining power.
The annual re-enactment of King William’s 1690 landing at the County Antrim seaside town on his way to the Battle of the Boyne celebrates the buildup to the historic Protestant victory and resonates with loyalist paramilitary remembrance of the Troubles.
“I’m a loyalist and Ulsterman,” explained Mervyn, an Orangeman from Larne, as he rolled up his sash at the end of the parade. “I voted DUP. I don’t want Jeremy Corbyn getting in. Theresa May is weak at the moment. The DUP have supported Conservatives for years.”
Another loyalist, sporting a red and blue Pride of Ardoyne band uniform, asked: “Will it be it Theresa May or the DUP who is in power? If Sinn Féin refuse to take their seats in Westminster that’s their problem. They walked out of [the devolved Northern Ireland government] in Stormont.”
Away from the seafront in Carrickfergus, lampposts on the estates inland flew loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) flags. Gable end walls displayed freshly retouched loyalist paramilitary murals. A Ulster Defence Association (UDA) painting bears the motto, in Latin and English, “We dare to defend our rights. None shall divide us,” beneath the image of two balaclavered gunmen.
The town has been the scene of an internal UDA feud that has resulted in two murders this year. That visible activity has raised pressing questions about the relationship of the DUP and its leader, Arlene Foster, with paramilitary groups. The murder of Colin Horner, in a North Down supermarket car park in front of his three-year-old son last month after he fled the UDA feud in Carrickfergus, revived community fears of loyalist violence and racketeering.
Foster, who met the senior UDA leader Jackie McDonald days after the killing, was criticised for failing to condemn all loyalist activity robustly enough. The Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said: “It beggars belief that only two days after the UDA murdered Colin Horner … Arlene Foster did not challenge a senior UDA leader to disband the armed loyalist gang.”
Foster said all paramilitary groups should disband. At the party’s manifesto launch she was asked if she had told McDonald that. She replied: “I had no need to say it to Jackie McDonald. [He] knows my views. If people want to move away from criminality, from terrorism, we will help them do that, but anyone who is engaged in this sort of activity should stop, should desist, and if they don’t they should be open to the full rigour of the law.”
The row escalated, however, because the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents loyalist paramilitary groups including the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, publicly endorsed three DUP candidates – Nigel Dodds, Gavin Robinson and Emma Little-Pengelly – and the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Tom Elliott. In recent elections, loyalists have put up their own political candidates.
The UUP and the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson swiftly rejected loyalist paramilitary backing but there were calls for Foster, as leader of the DUP, to join in a more explicit and public disavowal of UDA and UVF support.
Questions over the DUP’s links to loyalist paramilitary groups stretch back into the early years of the Troubles, when for example, Ian Paisley, the party’s charismatic founder, marched at the head of masked loyalist paramilitary ranks during the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike.
The formation of Ulster Resistance in 1986, a quasi-paramilitary and political organisation opposed to the Anglo-Irish agreement, was attended at Belfast’s Ulster Hall by Ian Paisley and another of the party’s MPs, Peter Robinson, who subsequently became DUP leader. Both politicians wore red, paramilitary-style berets at Ulster Resistance rallies.
A major arms find in County Armagh in November 1988 recovered Ulster Resistance berets and weapons. Parts of the organisation’s arms, however, delivered in a shipment shared with the UDA and UVF, have never been found.
One of those convicted for a subsequent attempt to import Ulster Resistance weapons was Noel Little, who also wore a red beret at Ulster Resistance rallies. His daughter, Emma Little-Pengelly, is the newly elected DUP MP for south Belfast.
The DUP’s past flirtations with loyalist paramilitary groups will continue to haunt the party’s public image and its negotiations with Theresa May this coming week.
Below Carrickfergus Castle, the lampposts carried posters of the beaming face of the winning, veteran local MP, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson who secured nearly 22,000 votes. Placards had also been put up for the local Conservative candidate in the East Antrim constituency, Mark Logan, who trailed in last with only 963 votes.
The small Conservative party in Northern Ireland, supported by the Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, fought the election in a handful of seats on a pro-business, anti-sectarian platform.
The province’s defeated Conservatives have yet to respond to the prime minister’s negotiations with the DUP. The Tory website carries an earlier speech by its candidate in North Down, Frank Shivers, in which he blamed the collapse of the power-sharing Stormont government on the “enduring problem with parochial, sectarian parties who simply want to waste more and more taxpayers’ money without any real plan to improve the economy or reform services”. The DUP and Sinn Féin, he added, “epitomise that attitude”.
Preparing to return to north Belfast, the Pride of Ardoyne bandsman basked in the DUP’s new-found strength. “Stormont is finished,” he said. “After the  Good Friday agreement, Sinn Féin got all the concessions and career advancement. The Parades Commission says my band uniform with boots and peaked cap is illegal.
“I voted for the DUP. They should get the Parades Commission abolished. Theresa May’s suggestion of tearing up human rights laws to tackle terrorism should apply here in Northern Ireland, too. When I voted for Brexit, I wasn’t asked whether it was soft or hard. I just want to keep Britain as a single unit.”