Further evidence has emerged of the depth of the split within the UUP over the EU referendum, with more elected members speaking out to urge a Leave vote, while leader Mike Nesbitt has again urged a vote for Remain.
After the weekend letter by current and former UUP grandees – including former leader Lord Trimble – urging a Leave vote, yesterday four councillors separately came out to strongly endorse leaving the EU.
But Mr Nesbitt issued a statement reiterating his strong support for staying in the EU.
The UUP and DUP positions are unusual, in that whereas the parties have each taken firm positions for and against the EU, they have both acknowledged that not all their members will agree with those views.
However, while no DUP member has spoken out to endorse Remain, a whole series of UUP figures have publicly come out to endorse Leave.
Yesterday, Mr Nesbitt said: “With three days to go to the EU referendum we are very conscious that there are a lot of unionists who are still undecided on how they will vote on Thursday.
“We have a very simple message for them; it’s ok to vote to remain. In fact, if you cherish the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland it is a good thing to vote remain.
“This is something we must remain clear headed about. Northern Ireland will acutely feel the implications of a Brexit; constitutionally, financially and politically.
“The potential for people from Northern Ireland being met with the same controls as non-UK citizens when entering Great Britain is not something to be brushed off.
“This really is a once in a lifetime decision. One that will have far reaching implications for our generation and those who follow.
“When faced with a decision like this it is easy to allow your emotions to dominate your decision-making. However, Thursday is a day to use your head and my head says we must remain.”
Alex Redpath, a UUP councillor in Lisburn who was the party’s Lagan Valley candidate for Westminster last year and a former party officer, told the News Letter he was “grateful” that the party had allowed its members to campaign and vote as they please.
That, he said, was “a sign of our strength and respect for members’ deeply held convictions”.
However, in making his own position clear, Mr Redpath set out a vision at variance with that of his leader.
He said: “I believe that Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole will be safer, wealthier and more free as a result of leaving the EU.
“At present the EU controls 100 per cent of our trade policy. We do not have free trade deals with the US, China, India or many of our Commonwealth partners.”
He also hit out at the “fundamentally undemocratic and unaccountable” nature of the EU institutions.
“The central EU policy making body is the European Commission. This body made up of 28 unelected officials who enact European legislation which is the starting point for the majority of UK law.
“As a local elected representative my hands are tied in a number of areas including waste and procurement as a result of European legislation. These rules make it significantly more difficult for me to deliver for my constituents.”
In a joint letter to the News Letter, UUP councillors Richard Holmes and Aaron Callan lamented that “the argument around the democratic deficit at the heart of Europe has unfortunately been lost amidst the economic arguments”.
The Causeway Coast and Glens councillors said that in the campaign “the key issues seem to be around economic Armageddon on the one side or being overrun by foreigners allegedly stealing our jobs in the other.
“It is sad that the issue of democracy has been relegated from the key decision making criteria but it is the issue which should be central to us all.
“For ideology unchecked by democracy can only lead to catastrophe. After all, we did not go to war in 1939 for economic interests but to defend our freedom.
“The European Union has the veneer of democracy as we all vote every five years for our MEPs.
“But the bodies of the EU are designed in such a way to disguise the lack of democracy at its heart. Our MEPs cannot start or stop any law or regulation in the Parliament, only suggest amendments.
“Whilst in the UK we elect the Government on the basis of a manifesto, no such manifesto has ever been put before the people of Europe by the unelected European Commissioners.
“They are the beating heart of the EU and are responsible for putting forward the policy to the Council of Ministers.
“Their ideological pursuit of a United States of Europe and support for the euro has brought Europe to its knees.”
And, also urging a Leave vote, George Shiels, a UUP councillor in Magherafelt, said that “sector after sector has taken a killer blow under European rule and farmer after farmer’s business has gone to the wall”.
He added: “I believe that the European Union is bleeding the UK dry and this isn’t the first time.
“During and after World War Two our country came close to bankruptcy – fighting the war to save our European neighbours from Hitler had taken a heavy toll in manpower and resources.”