Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has laid bare serious problems in the relationship between Northern Ireland’s two unionist MEPs and Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson.
Mr Nicholson admitted that he and the Sinn Fein MEP “do not get on very well” after Mrs Anderson replaced Bairbre de Brun as MEP two years ago.
Nostalgically recalling how there “wasn’t an angry word” between himself, Ian Paisley and John Hume when they represented Northern Ireland in Europe from the late 1980s, Mr Nicholson said that was no longer the case.
In an interview with the News Letter, he said that there was insufficient cooperation between the Executive and the MEPs: “There seems to be a dysfunctionality in the relationship between the MEPs and the Executive.”
He added: “Quite frankly, I find the visits of the junior ministers who have the responsibility fairly close to a waste of time because instead of coming out and telling us what their priorities are...they come and they sit there and they ask me to tell them. I’m sorry, but they’re the people who are in the Executive here; they should be telling us what Northern Ireland’s priorities are and how we can help them.”
He said that Sinn Fein and the DUP may be briefing their MEPs about issues but not involving him: “They didn’t brief me, but maybe it was because I was against the Maze. But they certainly never briefed me on the Maze; they certainly never asked me to support the Maze because they knew I wouldn’t do it.” He said that EU figures had not listened to “people like myself” when they were told that the project was “undeliverable”.
He said that for the first time agriculture had been “politicised” under Sinn Fein’s watch with arguments over agricultural subsidies, saying that he had only once been able to meet the Sinn Fein Agriculture Minister.
Asked how closely the three MEPs work together, Mr Nicholson said: “I think it’s time to be very, very truthful. I find that Diane Dodds and I have a very good working relationship because we do things jointly together.
“There are at times, and this is where I think to some extent there’s a difficulty, I have to be honest – Martina Anderson and I do not get on very well. I’m trying to be very diplomatic in how I put this.”
He added: “You said at the start of the interview that I have been here a very long time – in the first 15 years that I was an MEP, I worked with John Hume and Ian Paisley and I can tell you: during that 15 years there wasn’t an angry word between us.
“It was a different time, it was a different era – there was no Executive, it was direct rule.
“But we were the face of Northern Ireland in Europe...we fought for one thing only and that was Northern Ireland PLC...but I got more briefing during the time of direct rule than I get from the Executive.”
Mr Nicholson, who describes himself as a “Euro realist”, refused to be drawn on whether the UK would be better off out of the EU, saying that there is a need for more analysis of the costs and benefits of such a decision.
He said that “Europe has been very good to Northern Ireland”, bringing “over £2 billion in peace funds” but said that his friends in Europe now say to him, “how long does it take you to make peace in Northern Ireland? You have to simply say: Are they right?”
Mr Nicholson said that although the UUP and the Tories are no longer partners, “when I return after this election if I want to continue as a member of the ECR as an Ulster Unionist, if there’s no agreement with the Conservatives, then that will continue.”
I won’t be standing aside, says UUP veteran
Jim Nicholson has been attempting to use his age (69) as an asset, arguing that Northern Ireland needs an experienced MEP.
The UUP veteran is certainly by far the most experienced of the Province’s three MEPs – when he first went to Brussels as an MEP in 1989, there were 12 member states which made up the EU; today there are 29 and the nature of the EU has radically evolved.
But his age led to speculation in the months before his selection as the UUP’s candidate that he may retire.
However, when asked if he intended to serve a full term (which would make him 74 at the end of the next Parliament) if re-elected, Mr Nicholson said: “I’m certainly intending to serve a full term and I can look you in the eye and tell you that straight.
“But I would remind you that Ian Paisley fought his last European election when he was 74, so don’t rule that out...I’m very deeply conscious that the Good Lord gives us threescore years and ten and I’ve taken most of them up at the moment.
“But he’s been good to me and my health is good...and as long as I stay healthy I intend to keep carrying on.”
In the last election, with Conservative backing and with Jim Allister taking votes off the DUP, he was elected ahead of the DUP for the first time.
He said of the Conservative-Ulster Unionist link: “A lot of people felt that it was a good idea that didn’t work. After that last European election the party was on the up and the party had done exceptionally well.
“Somewhere along the way we lost our way after that.
“I think we’ve got to learn this time...the UUP has, I think, developed and matured under the leadership of Mike Nesbitt.”