DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson has condemned a hoax bomb attack which led to the Minister for Foreign Affairs fleeing a peace building event, saying there can be "no place for violence" in politics.
The Lagan Valley MP was criticised on Sunday night by Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MLA Mike Nesbitt for failing to "mention" the incident during his attendance at an anti-protocol rally in Ballymoney on Friday evening, just hours after the UVF targeted Simon Coveney in north Belfast.
Speaking to The Irish Times on Monday following a pre-election business event, Mr Donaldson insisted that he and his party condemned the Houben Centre incident immediately after it happened, and described paramilitary threats to politicians as “wrong”.
He also warned that political instability - the Stormont powersharing Executive collapsed in February after the DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned in protest at the NI Protocol - must not create a climate where "we cede the streets to people who want to go out and riot".
The loyalist paramilitary attack on Friday has been linked to Northern Ireland protocol opposition and provoked widespread political condemnation after a van driver was highjacked at gunpoint by two masked men and forced to drive what he believed was a live bomb. It was left in the carpark outside the Houben Centre building on the Crumlin Road, where Mr Coveney was the keynote speaker at an event organised by the John & Pat Hume Foundation.
The DUP leader further criticised those responsible for an overnight attack on the constituency office of UUP leader Doug Beattie, following his announcement he will no longer be attending rallies against the Protocol as he believed they were "raising tensions".
Mr Donaldson said: “On Friday we did condemn what happened in north Belfast. We did this before the rally at Ballymoney, not at it. Equally, I condemn the attack on Doug Beattie’s office.
“Those who enter the political process should be respected. Even if people disagree with their point of view, there can no place for violence. Politics is the way forward.
“We will only resolve the issues and challenges we face through the political process. So I am clear and unequivocal in my condemnation on all acts of violence, whether they are directed at people attending the event in north Belfast and the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, or Doug Beattie.”
As loyalist leaders warn about escalating violence over coming months in Northern Ireland due to Protocol concerns, Mr Donaldson appealed for calm and said he wanted to see “all our political institutions up and running”:
“What we cannot do is leave a vacuum and cede the streets to people who want to go out and riot. What I have sought to do as a political leader is to get people to recognise that politics is the only way to resolve these issues.
“Taking to the streets and using violence is not the way forward.”
Meanwhile, Mr Donaldson would not be drawn on whether his party would take the deputy first minister post to Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill if she is elected as Stormont first minister after the May 5th Assembly elections.
A LucidTalk poll in The Belfast Telegraph put Ms O’Neill’s party up one point to 26 per cent, with the DUP lagging behind on 19 per cent.
“We believe in devolution. But I’m also clear I want to win the election. So I’m not going to concede defeat based on an opinion poll. I’ve been around long enough to know now that pre-election opinion polls don’t represent the final outcome…So I’m going all-out to win the election,” Mr Donaldson added.