The UUP’s candidate for the European Parliament has ruled out a No Deal Brexit as “simply not an option”.
Danny Kennedy, who had voted to Remain in 2016, said his party has not given up on a “sensible” deal where Northern Ireland leaves the EU “on the same terms as the rest of the UK”, and reiterated his party’s stance on opposing a second referendum.
Mr Kennedy is running for one of the region’s three seats in Brussels in this month’s poll, against 10 other candidates.
In the 2014 election, the www.ark.ac.uk electoral archive says the top five candidates in terms of first preference votes were Martina Anderson (SF), 25.5%; Diane Dodds (DUP), 20.9%; Jim Nicholson (UUP), 13.3%; Alex Attwood (SDLP), 13%; and Jim Allister (TUV), 12.1%.
This year sees Mr Kennedy replace UUP veteran Jim Nicholson, who is retiring.
He will stand alongside Ms Anderson, Mrs Dodds, SDLP leader Colm Eastwood, Mr Allister, Alliance leader Naomi Long, Green leader Clare Bailey, UKIP’s Robert Hill, and Conservative Amandeep Singh Bhogal. Independents Neil Patrick McCann and Jane Morrice are also standing.
Speaking to about three dozen UUP members in the Stormont Hotel at 10am today, where the party launched its European manifesto, Mr Kennedy said: “We do not want or need any new borders.
“There won’t be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and there can’t be a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This doesn’t have to be a choice between either or.”
He added: “Leaving the EU without a sensible deal is simply not an option.”
He also spoke of threat of a referendum on Irish unity.
“We know nationalism is attempting to use Brexit as a key opportunity to realise their ultimate ideal – and there are those who will attempt to use the outcome as an excuse for a border poll,” he said.
“That’s why it’s vital I’m returned as a pro-Union voice who can help to bring some certainty, rather than the instability being offered by those who seek either another referendum whether on EU membership or indeed on Irish unity.
“I’m very clear – whether you voted Leave or Remain, I will be your voice.”
The event was broadcast live over Facebook by the News Letter. During the broadcast, one user wrote online about a “sensible deal”: “We all want that... but if we cant get it, as Theresa May now realises, what should happen? No Deal, or a new referendum?”
The News Letter put that to Mr Kennedy who said: “We simply can’t give up on this. We can’t say this doesn’t matter any longer. This is too important... and with my influence and my voice as an elected MEP and with colleagues this party will continue to press the case for a sensible Brexit deal.”
Pressed further on the idea of keeping No Deal on the table, he said: “No deal has the potential to do serious damage, if not fatal damage, to many of our industries.
“As someone who loves Northern Ireland, I could not stand up and advocate that and I am astonished that anyone who loves the union as much as I do would be prepared to tolerate that.”
The manifesto launched by the UUP yesterday distils Mr Kennedy’s positions down to eight things he is either for or against.
He is for: “A sensible Brexit deal; a secure future for NI within the UK; an end to uncertainty for jobs and business; no new border.”
And he opposes: “Crashing out of the EU; Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK; a border in the Irish Sea; a second referendum.”
The manifesto’s biggest segment is on the backstop, contained in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.
This could keep Northern Ireland (but not Great Britain) under a raft of EU rules for basically as long as the EU wants – something the UUP says “violates” the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent.
With the EU refusing to alter this, the situation facing the UK is often portrayed as this deal or No Deal. But the UUP “believes a workable alternative is still within reach”.
Mr Kennedy told delegates: “I’m disappointed that those who have been loud opponents to a hard border on the island fall silent when it comes to the prospect of a hard border in the Irish Sea.
“Unionist concerns around the backstop are just as valid and are afforded equal protection under the Good Friday Agreement as those of our nationalist neighbours about a hard land border.”
Mr Kennedy was MLA for Newry and South Armagh solidly from the time the Assembly was set up in 1998 until losing his seat in 2017.
He also held executive office as Stormont’s transport minister from 2011 to 2015. He signed on to the dole after losing his seat. Asked what is next for him if he does not win an MEP seat, he said to applause: “Defeat is not an option.”