Northern Ireland’s longest serving member of the European Parliament was today applauded by fellow MEPs on what might well have been his last speech.
Jim Nicholson, an Ulster Unionist who has been a member of the parliament for 30 years, was speaking in a Strasbourg debate on the European Council meeting last week, in which EU decided on its final terms for Brexit.
Mr Nicholson, who was a Westminster MP between 1983 and 1986 and then elected to the European Parliament in 1989, gave a short address to one of the final plenary sessions in which UK MEPs will be entitled to take part, unless the nation extends Article 50 and participates in the coming elections to the body.
With some of the most senior EU figures in the chamber this morning, including Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Nicholson said that he had said at the beginning of the Brexit process “that it would go down to the wire and beyond. I have not been disappointed”.
He added: “I also said at the very beginning that the people I represent would never accept a border in the Irish Sea, and that still stands Mr Barnier and I hope you are listening to that.”
He said that “the backstop, would unravel the fabric of the Belfast Agreement, an international agreement that many in this place champion, but wilfully forget the principle of consent within that agreement.
“And I have to say, there is a need to listen to everyone in Northern Ireland, not those who just shout the loudest. There’s a very quiet majority in Northern Ireland who also want a good way forward for Northern Ireland, for the United Kingdom and indeed for the European Union.”
Mr Nicholson said he was concerned that there was still a risk of the UK “crashing out”, which would be nobody’s fault, but he hoped the EU would ensure that that does not happen.
He said that this could well be his “last speech after 30 years in this parliament,” at which point he was interrupted by applause, before he went on to say that “it has been quite a long time, I have enjoyed it and all the people I have worked with through that time, I sincerely hope that I have represented the people that I represent in Northern Ireland with distinction”.
Mr Nicholson was met with further applause before the vice president of the parliament, Mairead McGuinness, said: “Can I say on my own behalf and I hope on behalf of most of the chamber I will miss you if you go but if is the word I underline.”
MEPs then applauded Mr Nicholson for a third time.
The DUP MEP Diane Dodds had spoken in the debate earlier and said: “After two years of negotiation our prime minister has concluded a draft Withdrawal Agreement that has twice suffered historic defeats in the House of Commons, a draft Withdrawal Agreement that would see Northern Ireland leaving on different terms to the rest of the United Kingdom under the backstop, an agreement from which the attorney general advises there is no legal right of withdrawal.”
Mrs Dodds, who was first elected a decade ago, added: “The DUP wants to leave the European Union in an orderly fashion but this deal will endanger the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.
“It is not a price that we as unionists are willing to pay.”
“Finally, some advice to Mr Tusk and Mr Bullman. 17.4 million people signalled their desire to leave the European Union. I think this house owes them some respect, and should acknowledge their democratic choice instead of focusing on everyone else.”
She reminded fellow MEPs that “the Belfast Agreement has a principle of consent, it is only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland that there will be any moves towards a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, you would do well to remember that”.
The Brexit treaty is a “modern-day Versailles,” Nigel Farage said in the debate.
He told MEPs: “We have the annexation of a part of national territory in the shape of Northern Ireland.
“We have a reparations bill of £39 billion we have to pay for nothing in return.”
Mr Farage added: “We are heading for an Article 50 extension.”
He asked if MEPs wanted Brexit to keep dominating their agenda, and new pro-Brexit MEPs.
Martina Anderson hit out at the “ignorance and arrogance” of British negotiators, fuelled by the DUP.
The Sinn Fein MEP said: “We campaigned for the north to remain in the EU, not out of the total love of this place, or some of its policies, but because we knew the damage that Brexit would inflict on our island. We were right.
“And more importantly, the majority of the people of the north of Ireland agreed with us.
“At the start of the negotiation process we warned all involved of British negotiation tactics. And I have to say, I’ll let you all judge how right we were. Their ignorance and their arrogance, fuelled by the Democratic Unionist Party, has brought us to the abyss on which we currently stand.”