A divide has opened within unionism over the EU question after the UUP leadership opted to back the push for the UK to stay – though one of its top members remains undecided.
The decision at the weekend puts the UUP leadership at odds with both other unionist parties and a portion of its own elected members and rank-and-file.
Tom Elliott (ex-party leader and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP) said while he had gone along with the decision of the party executive on Saturday, he actually remains to be convinced about the merits of remaining in the EU.
The party has said that its members will all have a free vote on the matter come June 23, and Mr Elliott believes they will also be free to campaign how they wish too.
The DUP, TUV and UKIP – in other words, all other unionist parties in the Assembly – are pushing for an EU exit.
One UUP Assembly candidate said last night that despite the formal endorsement of the ‘Remain’ campaign, she estimates party members in her area to be split equally – with roughly a third undecided, a third favouring exit and a third favouring remain.
Jim Nicholson, the party’s MEP, backed the leadership’s decision to take a pro-EU position – adding that the EU itself must change.
On Saturday, the UUP issued a statement which read: “The Ulster Unionist Party believes that on balance Northern Ireland is better remaining in the European Union, with the UK Government pressing for further reform and a return to the founding principle of free trade, not greater political union.
“The party respects that individual members may vote for withdrawal on June 23.”
An estimated 90-or-so people voted, including party officers and elected members.
The DUP rounded on the Ulster Unionists, with a spokesman telling the News Letter: “The one hallmark of Mike Nesbitt’s leadership is that he blows with the wind, on a whole range of issues – including the EU.
“One day he’ll be in, the next day he’ll be out.”
The UUP’s MEP Mr Nicholson said that he backs the executive’s stance, adding that “there must be further reform within the EU”.
He said: “Our party executive fully considered the full implications of the UK’s involvement in Europe and decided that the best option was to stay within the EU.
“Economically, from both a manufacturing and agricultural perspective, opinion favoured the party recommending a vote to remain.
“The EU has many imperfections in its overarching administrative and regulatory structures, and the UK Government must continue to seek further reform and, as my party’s statement concludes, return to the founding principle of free trade, as opposed to enlarged political union.”
Asked for his own stance, UUP MP Mr Elliott said: “I suppose I would’ve been a very strong person for coming out of Europe. But I think – obviously – things do change...
“My heart would tell me to come out of Europe, but there are dangers in it as well.”
Ultimately, Mr Elliott is undecided.
However, he indicated that he was among those backing the UUP executive’s motion to remain in the EU.
“The party seemed to want to take that position,” he said.
“But as long as members have a free vote, I don’t mind that at all.”
He added: “[There’s] no major issue with that... I think most parties are the same.”
For example, he noted that DUP members will also enjoy a free vote on the matter, even though its leadership has backed the ‘leave’ campaign.
William Jamieson, chair of the Foyle UUP constituency association, speaking personally, said: “I’m in favour of [getting] out of the EU. I think we’d gain our own sovereignty, our own independence.”
Meanwhile, among the undecided voters is Lisburn councillor Jenny Palmer, who joined the UUP from the DUP last year, and said in December that she will be running for the party in Lagan Valley in May’s Assembly election.
Asked how party members in the region are split, Mrs Palmer estimated it is “30 per cent undecided, 30 per cent ‘out’, and 30 per cent ‘in’ – roughly a third in each”.
She had been at the executive meeting where the EU position was decided, but did not have a vote. She said the meeting had been “99.9 per cent unanimous”.
She said: “Certainly that’s the party’s view at the moment, but there are a lot of individuals who haven’t examined whether they’ll vote ‘in’ or ‘out’ yet – like myself.
“At this point in time we’re supporting to remain in Europe. But a lot of members still haven’t determined one way or the other, and I’m one of them.”
She believes there are more important issues on voters’ doorsteps than the EU referendum; including what she dubbed “nine years of failure within the Assembly”.