New Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken has said that if the UK cannot leave the EU as one nation, then it must remain in the EU as one nation.
In a speech to the Ulster Unionist Council in Templepatrick just moments after he was ratified as UUP leader without a contest, the South Antrim MLA gave some broad hints as to where he is likely to take the party.
The former Royal Navy commander argued that if devolution does return it must be better than the “catastrophically undermined” version which existed before Stormont’s collapse “when we went from power-sharing, to see who could fill their boots”.
Setting out his policy on the EU he said: “The UUP voted, on balance, to remain in the referendum; as a democratic party we recognised the result of the referendum, however as a unionist party right now, with Boris Johnson’s deal being the only one on the table, we have to recognise a clear fact – if the Conservatives’ deal goes through Northern Ireland will, well and truly, be a ‘place apart’.
“We will be separated from our largest market, with differing legal systems, tax regimes, and held ‘accountable’ by special and joint EU committees.
“There are many unionists, and indeed many in this room, who will have voted to leave, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t vote for England, Scotland and Wales to leave, while Northern Ireland stays – we have a stark choice, but for us, the Union, of our whole United Kingdom, must come before anything else.”
He added: “So, for the Ulster Unionist Party, our message is clear – with only Boris’s/DUP sell-out deal on the table, we must put our Union first.
“We joined the EU as one, we either leave as one, or we remain as one.”
Recalling his own political journey, the UUP chief whip said that it was “not by any conventional means: I come from South Antrim, a proud son of a senior trade union official, steeped in working-class unionism, proud of our heritage, with many of my earliest and fondest memories of seeing my dad in his silver band leading my uncles’ lodges at many a 12th July parade.
“I have from those days to now, had a deep-set and indomitable belief in my home, our culture, our people and above all, my country.”
Mr Aiken said that after his naval career, in which he commanded two nuclear submarines, he became a senior staff officer in the Ministry of Defence, “giving me extensive exposure to how Whitehall and government works – gaining a knowledge of how departments, ministers and permanent secretaries should work properly: like in taking minutes and keeping special advisors in their place – a lesson sadly lost here.
“But I also spent far too much time in the world’s conflict areas; seeing, unfortunately, at close hand, what happens when politics fails and when our armed forces had to step in.”
Mr Aiken said that his vision was of Northern Ireland as a “modern and inclusive part of the United Kingdom – one in which we can all feel part of – regardless of class, religion, gender, orientation or identity”.
He went on: “We have the people, the skills and the ambition – but what we need to do is to make Northern Ireland work again.
“And because we must do that – we can become one of the most successful regions of our country – no longer being seen as a burden, constantly seeking handouts, but seen as an asset and an equal partner, by all of our fellow citizens, across our great nation.”
Mr Aiken paid tribute to his predecessor as leader, Robin Swann, saying that it was his “dogged tenacity as chair of the Public Accounts Committee that helped expose the scandal of RHI”.
Mr Aiken also said that “we are in a climate emergency” which required urgent action.