Belfast Telegraph

SDLP's Ritchie attacks hoax letters 'dirty tricks'

By Noel McAdam

The PSNI has launched an investigation after a fake election letter in the name of Margaret Ritchie was distributed in the constituency.

The SDLP South Down candidate hit out at "dirty tricks" after the hoax was exposed.

Hundreds were posted out to mainly unionist areas - and the message was clearly designed to stop unionists voting for the nationalist politician.

The SDLP veteran is facing a strong challenge from Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard in Thursday's poll, and Ms Ritchie may not hold the seat without tactical voting by unionists.

There is no suggestion that Mr Hazzard or Sinn Fein were behind the leaflet.

One source said that there appeared to have been "hundreds" of the fake letters posted out.

"This was a sizeable operation," they said. "It would have taken quite a bit of effort."

Asked who was behind the leaflet, the source blamed republicans.

"They want to try and spook unionist voters in the knowledge that if Margaret Ritchie manages to attract a cross-community vote, she will hold on to her seat," the source claimed.

DUP MLA Jim Wells, who is named in the leaflet, said he had received half a dozen calls from unionists in Kilkeel and Annalong who had received them.

He described them as "insidious" - but "very clever".

"These tactics are totally unacceptable," he said. Ms Ritchie's election team has reported the matter to the PSNI and the Electoral Commission, and Mr Wells said he will too.

The fake leaflet says Ms Ritchie supports a border poll in the next five years. While her party has called for a poll after Brexit, it has not set out a timescale.

The hoax letter tells unionists that "for far too long" their politicians have "let you down" on issues such as Brexit and same-sex marriage.

Ms Ritchie said: "I have been an MP for everyone in South Down.

"Anyone who knows me will know that my door is open to those of all faiths, political and social backgrounds.

"People in South Down will see through these dirty tricks.

"They know my character and my passion for all the people in South Down and we will not be deterred."

Former Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy was the victim of a similar tactic during the Assembly election in which he lost his Newry and Armagh seat.

"Politics is low enough in the eyes of the public and this will do nothing to allay that perception," Mr Kennedy said.

In a statement, Chief Inspector Alexander Johnston said: "Police are aware and are investigating."

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