A former senior Tory who is now UKIP’s deputy chairman has said the anti-EU party is focussed on Northern Ireland as an area of growth.
Neil Hamilton, who was in Ulster for three days earlier this week, said that he had been “all over the Province... from Londonderry down to Newry; from Fermanagh over to Belfast”.
Speaking to the News Letter at the end of the trip, he said: “The support levels that I’ve seen are far beyond what I might have expected”.
The 65-year-old — who was voted out as an MP in 1997 joined UKIP in 2002 but has come to the fore in recent years since becoming deputy chairman — predicted that UKIP could take between 24 to 36 of the UK’s 73 MEP seats.
Mr Hamilton said he saw Northern Ireland as “a great growth point for us because there’s a big, old-fashioned, socially conservative, working class vote in Northern Ireland that has been betrayed by its political representatives”.
He argued that the party could be “a unifying factor”in the Province as it brought together Catholic and Protestant opponents of the EU.
About 15 per cent of the party’s members in Northern Ireland are Catholic, many of them socially conservative professionals, according to the party’s European election candidate, Kilkeel councillor and Orangeman Henry Reilly.
In past elections, senior UKIP figures have made wildly optimistic comments prior to elections in which — outside of Mr Reilly’s considerable personal vote as a Kilkeel councillor — the party has not come close to taking seats.
The 2011 Assembly election saw six UKIP candidates poll just 4,152 votes between them.
Mr Hamilton said he was confident that the party would perform “substantially better everywhere in this election”.
He admitted the political landscape in Northern Ireland is “more complicated” than the rest of the UK but said the party had a niche as “a non-sectarian, non-racist unionist party with no historical baggage”.
He referred to “the DUP, the Ulster Unionists or the other rag-bag of unionist parties”, saying that none was able to get more than a single voice in the European Parliament.
Mr Hamilton said he had been “determined to come to Northern Ireland for a reasonable period of time” during the election campaign, having been many times since first visiting in 1972.
He added: “We’re very, very keen to develop in Northern Ireland, build up our branches, integrate them fully into the structure of UKIP nationally... so that its voice is heard more widely than just within the six counties because that’s what Northern Ireland needs - to reconnect with the outside world.”
He denied a career politician such as himself risked jeopardising UKIP’s image as an ‘anti-politicians’ party’, saying he had “a lot of experience of life at the sharp end, as well”.
Ex-MP may stand for Parliament
The former Tory minister — who famously lost his seat to Martin Bell in 1997 after allegations of ‘cash for questions’ which he has always denied — said that he may stand again for Parliament.
He said: “Well, I may have a go at the Westminster election next year. Although, to be realistic at my age I’m not looking for a very long-term political career.”
He said that “the past is the past” but that he had been “exonerated after a long high-level Inland Revenue fraud investigation into all my financial affairs during the period that I was an MP”.