General Election: Nine Northern Ireland charities warned over unionist unity letter
Nine charities have been warned about crossing political boundaries over a letter which urged the UUP to stand aside to give the DUP a better chance of retaining one of its seats in the forthcoming General Election.
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The Charities Commission has strongly rejected any suggestion it was itself acting in a political matter by issuing the warnings saying the matter came to its attention when the letter appeared in the Belfast Telegraph and it acted in line with its core values.
A spokeswoman said: "The independent nature of the charitable sector is of fundamental importance to society and is greatly valued by the public.
"The guiding principle of charity law in terms of campaigning, political activity and elections is that charities must be, and be seen to be, independent of party politics."
A series of high-profile unionists warned the then incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken he risked handing the DUP's Nigel Dodds's North Belfast seat to Sinn Fein through his ant-pact stance.
Mr Aiken - who was at the time the incoming leader of the UUP - said he intended to run candidates in all 18 constituencies in an interview with this organisation, to give unionist voters a choice between his remain-focused party and the pro-leave DUP.
He later rowed back, and the party stood aside in North Belfast. Police are also investigating paramilitary threats made against party officials.
Those behind the letter outlined their "strong opposition" to any proposal to split the unionist vote in a seat always held by a unionist.
It was signed by 25 people including unionist politicians, Orange Order members and others who said they were part of various residents' groups.
One signatory said he was part of the Carnmoney Royal British Legion. The British Legion was forced to come out and distance itself from the letter saying it was "strictly" a non-party political organisation and it was investigating the "mis-use" of its name.
Thursday's Irish News reported some of those organisations named on the letter were sanctioned.
The Charities Commission confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph it had contacted nine organisations offering them the opportunity to take remedial action.
- Shankill Women's Centre
- Woodvale Residents Association - which received two letters for its unincorporated and incorporated separate entities
- Rathcoole Friends of the Somme
- Lower Oldpark Community Association
- Belfast County Grand Lodge
- Greater Shankill Community Council
- Belfast Orange Hall
- Concerned Upper Ardoyne Residents Association
It said charities had to avoid appearing to support political parties or politicians or favouring them in any way.
The charities were given until November 18 to familiarise themselves with guidance published on its website, confirm any posts which breached the guidelines had been removed and make sure all staff were aware of the organisation's obligations as a charity.
Nigel Dodds has been MP for North Belfast since 2001, when he took the seat from the UUP's Cecil Walker. By 2010 his majority had been cut to 2,224. In 2015 and 2017 the UUP did not stand a candidate in the constituency. At the last election, Mr Dodds had a 2,081 majority over Sinn Fein's John Finucane.
The letter to Steve Aiken stated North Belfast "holds a special place in the heart of the unionist community across Northern Ireland" and Nigel Dodds had been the "collective choice" of that community.
"Whilst we the undersigned come from different political viewpoints, as unionists, we are all united in our desire to ensure North Belfast returns a unionist Member of Parliament."
It urged Mr Aiken to put country before party, adding: "Only Nigel can retain this seat."
A spokeswoman for the Charities Comission added: "The Commission refutes allegations it is acting in a political manner. This case came to our attention as it involved charities being named in the most public manner possible – published in a daily newspaper.
"The action taken is in line with the Commission’s values of proportionality, impartiality and independence, and is in keeping with action taken in other cases that have come to our attention where a charity has acted in breach of the campaigning guidance, regardless of what section of the community it may be associated with."
Belfast Telegraph Digital