VETERAN Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson last night launched a fierce broadside at the “faceless, gutless” members of his party who are briefing against him.
Mr Nicholson said that the same unnamed UUP members who brought down Tom Elliott’s leadership now want him out of the way, and are anonymously telling journalists that there is a mood within the UUP for “change” when choosing the 2014 European election candidate.
Last night, a furious Mr Nicholson – who was elected as a Conservative and Unionist ahead of the DUP’s Diane Dodds three years ago – said that he would “take them on and I’ll take them out”.
At the weekend, a Sunday tabloid newspaper published a story suggesting that Mr Nicholson will be challenged for the UUP nomination in less than two years’ time.
It quoted an unnamed “informed party source” as saying: “Jim has, of course, vast experience, but this would have to be balanced against the current mood within the party for change and a new beginning.”
Last night, Mr Nicholson told the News Letter: “I’m extremely saddened by this whole type of briefing which smacks of the same type of underhand comment from people who are not prepared to come out and identify themselves, as happened against Tom Elliott.
“As far as I am concerned, I am not prepared to put up with this. I’m not going to stand for it and these people can either stand up, put up or shut up.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve made my position clear on the Inside Politics show a number of weeks ago, before the whole campaign took place, that I’m enjoying my job, I’m enjoying it more than ever, I’ve got tremendous responsibility in terms of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, I want to continue to work and help on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, and those are my priorities.
“But the one thing that I’m certainly not going to be is put off track on doing my job by these faceless, gutless people who reporters call ‘important people’ or ‘informed sources within the Ulster Unionist Party’.
“Mike Nesbitt said very clearly when he was elected leader that the past was over. As far as I’m concerned, the past is over and if these people want to really come out and challenge me, let them go up there.
“I have stood for election after election since 1975 and if they have the guts to stand there and put their name up against me, I’ll take them on and I’ll take them out. It’s as simple as that.”
The former MP, who has been an MEP for a quarter of a century, said that he would not stand for the off-the-record briefings against him.
“This is the sort of thing that has bedevilled the UUP for years and it’s got to be buried and buried right away,” he said.
“I am prepared to take it on, whatever the outcome. I’m not prepared to sit back and if I’m going to go down, I will go down fighting. I am not going to sit back and have people briefing against me.”
Asked whether he knew the identity of those briefing against him, Mr Nicholson said that he “had suspicions” about some of those but could not prove who was involved.
“They are people who hide behind this ‘informed person’ or ‘Ulster Unionist Party source’ – none of them have ever had the courage, either for Tom Elliott’s position or for my position, to come out in the open.
“I challenge them now – come out in the open; I’ll take you on and I’ll take you out. If that’s the way they want it, then so be it.
“I’ve been an Ulster Unionist all my life and I will not be driven out of the party by people who do not represent the party any more.”
The Sunday Life article suggested that Upper Bann MLA Jo-Anne Dobson or former leader Tom Elliott could challenge the sitting MEP for the party’s nomination.
Mr Elliott told the News Letter that he would not be challenging the MEP.
“I didn’t see the article but I heard about it,” he said.
“I have no interest... I am fully behind Jim Nicholson, no question about it. I’ve been very supportive of Jim Nicholson; I think he’s an excellent MEP and there is no chance of me challenging him, there’s no truth at all in that.”
Mrs Dobson, who got involved in frontline politics by managing Mr Nicholson’s office, said that she had “the utmost respect” for her former boss.
“Jim is a superb MEP and I will definitely be fully supporting him the next time as well,” she said.
The Upper Bann MLA added: “I would never challenge Jim. Having worked for him, I have seen how excellent he is as an MEP so I will definitely not be challenging Jim.”