Several Democratic Unionist Party members have quit the party over what is claimed to be a “purge” against those who opposed Edwin Poots during the recent leadership campaign.
DUP councillors Glyn Hanna and Kathryn Owen, and former Westminster candidate Diane Forsythe, are among members to have left the Northern Ireland party during a bitter row over the ousting of Arlene Foster.
The departures follow a vote to remove Mr Hanna as the chair of the DUP South Down Association at its AGM over the weekend.
The councillor said there had been “open and unashamed bullying” by some in the party against people who had voiced support for Ms Foster and backed Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in last month’s leadership contest.
Sir Jeffrey said it was highly regrettable that “senior and valued members now feel the DUP is no longer a warm house for them” – and revealed he had been forced to talk others in the party out of resigning.
Mr Hanna alleged some party members faced intimidation and bullying at a meeting of the DUP executive in Belfast at the end of last month when Mr Poots’s election victory was formally ratified.
“I believe this is the beginning of the purge of anyone who spoke against the leadership so I encourage others in the DUP with decency and integrity to consider their position,” he said in his resignation statement.
Ms Owen, a fellow councillor on Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, added: “It is apparent to me that there is a purging of Donaldson supporters, and it is only a matter of time before this continues across the party.”
In her own resignation statement, Ms Forsythe said she had faced “disrespectful attitudes” within the party, including “shameful sexism, ageism and the underlying tone of bullying”.
She said the bullying was now in “plain sight” – with members’ families “bullied and smeared” during the leadership contest. “The disintegration of this party in recent times has left me no option but to leave.”
Sir Jeffrey, speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, urged the party’s new leader to reach out to those who had opposed him.
“I fear that if Edwin fails to quickly get a grip of this situation, then many others may also conclude that the DUP is no longer capable of being a broad church and providing a home for the type of unionism we espouse,” he said.
“Recognising that many within the party have serious concerns about the manner in which Arlene was removed, and about the future direction of the party, I have sought quietly to reassure those who supported me and who have contemplated resignation.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the DUP said the party takes the claims of resigning members “very seriously” and suggested that complaints “should be made in writing to enable a thorough and fair investigation”.
It comes as the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis suggested that it would be a mistake and would “make things more difficult” if Mr Poots did not take on the role of first minister.
Mr Poots has said he will nominate one of his colleagues to be first minister, saying he wanted to focus on the party. The DUP’s Paul Givan is widely tipped to take on the role after Ms Foster steps down.