Jim Nicholson: ‘The big danger in all of this, which I foresaw, is a border in the Irish Sea’

Jim Nicholson listens to praise from the speaker after speaking in the plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday March 27 2019, one of his last ever speeches as an MEP in the chamber after 30 years as an NI representative there
Jim Nicholson listens to praise from the speaker after speaking in the plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday March 27 2019, one of his last ever speeches as an MEP in the chamber after 30 years as an NI representative there
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The new Northern Ireland MEPs will be revealed today, but Jim Nicholson will not be among them. At the Strasbourg Parliament recently, BEN LOWRY talked to the outgoing Ulster Unionist MEP, who did not seek re-election after 30 years there, about his time there

On March 27, Jim Nicholson got a warm reception from MEPs after what was likely to be one of his last ever speeches as member of the European Parliament (EP).

Jim Nicholson in the European Parliament building Strasbourg, after appearing in the debate on March 27

Jim Nicholson in the European Parliament building Strasbourg, after appearing in the debate on March 27

A warm reception, that is, from the MEPs present — the Strasbourg chamber was less than half full from the 700+ representatives who have been elected to it.

The Ulster Unionist politician, who had previously won a seat in Westminster for the Newry and Armagh constituency in 1983 aged 38 (he then lost his seat in the 1986 protest by-elections over the Anglo Irish Agreement) was first elected to the EP in 1989.

He has become, until his term comes to an end today, one of the body’s longest serving members. His high profile is apparent after spending a few minutes in his company at Strasbourg, where MEPs and other officials are constantly stopping to say hello.

The warm reception from the chamber earlier that day, he tells the News Letter, is proof that “I represented Northern Ireland in a way in which I could always make Northern Ireland proud”.

Mr Nicholson, steeping down at the age of 74, adds: “I got to know a lot of MEPs, as I go around here I know a lot of people, from right across the political spectrum, and from many other countries. Most of them do respect me, and where I come from, nobody ever insulted my unionism, in any way shape size or form in the 30 years I have been here.”

The elected chamber of the European Union represents a Europe that “was totally unlike the Europe that I came to”.

He explains: “In 1989 there were 12 member states, now it is a totally different place, its number was much smaller, you got to know people better.

“It is now very large, it is very impersonal.”

He came from a “divided and confrontational” type of politics in the UK and Ireland to “a much more quiet political relationship [in Europe]. You’ve got to find compromise and consensus, and coming as an Ulster Unionist from Northern Ireland in 1989 those were not words that were probably central to my political game at that time.

“But I think over the years I have learned how to work and use Europe to the best advantage of Northern Ireland.

“It’s been a long journey.”

The EU did not exist in 1989, it was the EC (European Community), which had previously been the EEC (European Economic Community).#

Mr Nicholson however rejects criticism of the EU and EP as being undemocratic.

“That is a misconception. The system is different whereby there is no overall majority and all the different political parties come from all the different states, they form themselves into the like member groups.

“That is something I also had to get used to, but I found also that it was a strength, as well as a disadvantage and whereby you don’t have a majority, you have to create a majority.

“You have to then try to create that majority for you and then compromise to get it, uh, there’s times it works against you and there’s times it works for you.”

The biggest change over his 30 years as an MEP came in 2009, when “in the constitution, parliament got the power of co decision”.

Prior to that, it MEPs only had the power of influence.

“That was very significant,” he says, adding that it was a good reform. “With responsibility, with financial control and having an input into the finances, gives you the responsibility for that which you are doing, we can no longer simply sit back and demand like, maybe a bit like the old councils.

“Back at home where you can be all things to all people, at all times. You didn’t have to worry where the money was coming from, now the parliament has got to accept the budget and set the parameters within that budget.”

Mr Nicholson, a farmer, has for example been involved in reform of CAP (Common Agricultural Policy).

“I believe that the UK future agricultural policy outside Europe will be very similar to the existing policy so I want to see what way it is going.”

Mr Nicholson says “it was excellent to see all those in many countries who were behind the yoke of the iron curtain for so long” join the EU but adds: “Maybe Europe went too far, too fast number one in enlarging and bringing in, some of the member states they brought in”.

Similarly, some countries were allowed to massage their statistics to join the euro currency.

The possibility of Britain leaving the EU “has always been there”, he says.

“When I joined here would have been pretty anti Europe myself, and I suppose as the years rolled on I actually believed what David Cameron wanted to do, which was reform Europe from within, rather than to leave it.

“I do believe Europe will now have tremendous difficulties reforming itself when the UK leaves and I think that is probably, the EU needed the UK much more in my opinion than the UK needed the EU.”

His party, he adds, was right to back continued EU membership in 2016, but now “the genie is out of the bottle”.

Once the UK voted for Brexit, Mr Nicholson says, he made clear “the biggest danger in all of this, and I saw it coming long before it came, was a border in the Irish Sea ... I did so from the start, and I saw it coming”.

He says of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement: “I am totally against Europe annexing Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.”

That very day, March 27, he again made this clear to Michel Barnier, who was at the parliament for its debate that day.

Asked if he feels sadness at the UK departure, Mr Nicholson waits a few seconds before answering: “Well I suppose, that depends, as I look at how events have unfolded.”

Neither side in the referendum “covered themselves with much glory, quite frankly”.

But he does not support another poll.

Will senior EU figures miss the UK? “Oh yes,” he says, “oh yes”.

But, he adds, it does depend who you talk to. Some now just want the UK to make its mind up as to what it wants and get on with it.

He now hopes for a good UK deal with the EU “and that we can work in good cooperation with each other, we can have a trade negotiations that is tariff free, that most of what is happening will simply go on, and we are on the outside of it”.

Mr Nicholson does not want a European president or army.

When he joined in 1989 he never saw the single currency coming.

“It is quite ironic insofar as it was born out of the single market, and the architect of the single market was the late Margaret Thatcher.”