There has been criticism after a poster of UUP leader Doug Beattie – appearing to show a noose around his neck – was left ahead of an anti-NI Protocol rally in Lurgan on Friday night. It was removed from view by the DUP and TUV leaders.
Mr Beattie has faced criticism after pulling out of rallies.
There is no suggestion the organisers of Friday’s protest are linked to the poster.
The placard was turned around, removing it from sight, by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister after they spotted it, before proceedings got underway.
Mr Allister told the Belfast Telegraph he understood it had been placed near the platform before people had arrived. He said it was “entirely inappropriate”.
He also told PA that if someone placed it to "convey malevolence", that "they were idiots".
UUP members told of their anger at the incident.
Election candidate Darryl Wilson posted on Twitter: “The man on the poster has done more for his country and has more bravery in his little finger than the coward that drew a noose on his neck. The constant, obsessive, divisive attacks from individuals online has spilled over into reality.”
East Belfast candidate Lauren Kerr said: “The mental gymnastics that must be involved to try to Lundy a decorated military veteran who has travelled across continents promoting unionism. If it’s between Doug and the clown who painted a noose around his neck I know who I’d rather was representing unionism.”
Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson, who spoke at the rally, also criticised those responsible.
“This ‘stunt’ was disgraceful. It doesn’t represent the anti-Protocol movement, and you have to wonder to whose agenda those who placed it there are working,” he Tweeted. “Doug (in my view) is wildly out of touch on the Protocol, but he remains a decorated military veteran deserving of respect.”
In a Tweet, Mr Beattie urged UUP candidates, activists and supporters not to lose heart.
He said: “Week two of election campaigning is over. Don’t lose heart, don’t listen to the detractors, you are doing what others would not, adding ‘It’s not the critic that counts’.”
Thousands paraded in the Co Armagh town at one of the biggest anti-protocol rallies yet.
Mr Beattie was originally due to speak at the rally but angered unionist and loyalist organisations after announcing he would not be involved in the protests as they are “raising tensions”.
Mr Beattie had said the anti-protocol rallies were “adding to tensions that now see a resurgence in UVF activity”, following a security alert in north Belfast on March 25, where Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was evacuated from a peace event.
The group behind Friday’s rally in Mr Beattie’s Upper Bann constituency - Lurgan United Unionists - rejected an offer to meet with the UUP leader to discuss his decision to pull out of the protest.
They claimed it would have been “inappropriate” to meet with Mr Beattie in private, citing the politician’s refusal to “engage with his constituents and fellow unionists on a matter of the utmost importance”.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey, who was heckled by a small number of people in the crowd, told those assembled that unionism is entitled to express its opposition to the protocol in a “public and peaceful way”, while Mr Allister alluded to Mr Beattie’s remarks as “denigrating protests and protestors”.
Friday’s rally saw thousands take part in a parade through Lurgan as Orange lodges, the Royal Black Preceptory, Apprentice Boys and loyalist bands from across Northern Ireland made their way to Brownlow House.
According to the Lurgan United Unionists’ Parades Commission application, 10,000 were expected with 60 bands, as well as 1,000 supporters, although the numbers were not quite as high as anticipated.
Brownlow House - the largest Orange hall in the world - provided the perfect backdrop as Sir Jeffrey, Mr Allister and Jamie Bryson told the crowd the protocol was the single biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
Sir Jeffrey said he hoped “all unionist parties” will stand together united against the protocol and appealed to “those who have determined not to be part of this campaign” to return.
“I want to see that happen because I believe it is in that unity that we find our strength,” he stated.
“It is not that we want to have something more than other citizens in Northern Ireland, it is not that we want for ourselves anything that we would not have for anyone else.
“What we demand is simply our rights - our democratic rights - and it is not democratic to have laws imposed on Northern Ireland by the EU over which we have no say and no accountability.
“That is not democracy and it should be rejected.”
In 2017, the DUP elected two MLAs in Upper Bann with a total of 16,885 first preference votes, Mr Beattie received 5,467 and the TUV gained 1,035.
While the DUP’s two seats in the constituency are seemingly safe ahead of the May 5 election, Mr Allister’s strong opposition to the protocol has seen his party surge in popularity - and that showed after receiving huge cheers as he took to the platform with chants of “TUV”.
Mr Allister told the crowd that any unionist who comes to terms with the protocol is embracing a transition out of the UK into an Irish Republic.
He said the “core premise” of the protocol is that Great Britain is a foreign country and Northern Ireland - in trading terms - is an integral part of the EU.
“It is because of this defining designation of GB as a foreign country that we have the folly of the Poots posts imposing checks on goods from the rest of the UK,” stated Mr Allister.
“Such customs checks - shamefully overseen by a DUP minister - are the physical manifestation that now when moving goods from GB to NI, they are moving from the sovereign territory of the UK to the sovereign territory of the UK.
“What a shocking and unbearable assault on our proclaimed position as a part of the United Kingdom.”
He added that any unionist who “finds nothing to protest about” and who “denigrates” protests does not “get the protocol or the union-dismantling synergy”.
“Unionist voters who are dismayed by such complacency can, and should, express that disappointment by how they deploy their preferences in the election,” stated Mr Allister. “Now is a time for strength, not weakness.”
Meanwhile, Mr Bryson said it was his “sincere hope” that all unionist political representatives will return to the “unionist family and stand with us”.
“The two men behind me on the platform tonight [Sir Jeffrey and Mr Allister] have been clear and I hope will again be clear in their contribution tonight that there will not be and there cannot be power-sharing in Northern Ireland until the union subjugating protocol is removed and the principal of consent operates to safeguard the union,” he said.