Ulster Unionist veteran Jim Nicholson is not going to stand again for re-election in next month’s European election, the News Letter can reveal.
In a development which makes it more possible for another party or individual to claim Northern Ireland’s third MEP seat next month, Mr Nicholson said that after three decades in the role, he would not be standing again for re-election.
The 74-year-old, who was first elected to Europe in 1989 after losing his Newry and Armagh Westminster seat in a by-election called to protest the Anglo-Irish Agreement, said that it was “time to hand the baton on”.
The European elections now appear almost certain to take place after Theresa May failed to get her Brexit deal through the Commons and decided that the UK would not be leaving the EU without a deal.
Unless there is an astonishing change in voting patterns, the DUP and Sinn Féin each have a safe seat, leaving the final seat to be fought over. The UUP will be hoping to retain Mr Nicholson’s seat.
However, there has been speculation about a possible pro-EU independent candidate attempting to take the final seat and the TUV leader Jim Allister could also be in contention if he decides to stand.
Mr Nicholson is the last of the trio of big beasts who for many years represented Northern Ireland in Brussels and Strasbourg. Although ideologically divided, Mr Nicholson, the late Ian Paisley and John Hume often were able to present a united front on behalf of their constituents on issues not relating to the constitutional question.
In a statement to the News Letter, the Armagh political veteran said: “There has been a lot of speculation regarding my intentions after it was announced that European elections are scheduled to take place on 23 May.
“I said a few weeks ago that it was time to hand the baton on and that is still my belief. Therefore I won`t be putting my name forward to seek selection as the Ulster Unionist Party`s candidate in the forthcoming European elections.”
Mr Nicholson said that it had been “an enormous honour to represent Northern Ireland in the European Parliament for the last 30 years as an Ulster Unionist MEP” and that he had “always endeavoured to do what`s right for all our people,no matter their background”.
He said: “I worked with Ian Paisley and John Hume to secure peace funding from Europe and it’s something of which I am enormously proud. I want to wish all the best to whoever is nominated as the Ulster Unionist Party’s candidate.”
Mr Nicholson, a mild Eurosceptic who described himself as a ‘Euro-realist’, supported the UK remaining in the EU. He said that the way in which Brexit had been handled “is scandalous” and that despite the fact that he voted to remain, “the democratic vote should be respected and the United Kingdom should be leaving the EU.
“We need an end to the uncertainty and I would like to see the UK leaving the EU by the end of June with a sensible deal. However the fact that the United Kingdom is now facing the prospect of European elections and the backstop, which undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom, has been allowed to dictate the nature of our future relationships, underlines the absurdity of the Government`s negotiating tactics.”
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said that Mr Nicholson had been “a sensible voice in politics throughout the Troubles and right up until the present day”.
He added: “He is an unashamed unionist and has always stood up for the interests of Northern Ireland and our place within the United Kingdom.
“His wise counsel has always been welcomed within the party and I look forward to that continuing. If anybody thinks Jim will slip quietly into retirement, they don`t know the man.”