Ukip leader Nigel Farage has only urged the party’s voters to transfer to other Eurosceptics – not to all other pro-Union candidates.
In an interview with the News Letter during a campaign visit to Northern Ireland yesterday, Mr Farage explicitly declined to say that the party’s voters should give lower preference votes to Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, who is campaigning to keep the UK within the EU.
Some of Ukip’s most prominent figures in Northern Ireland – including leader David McNarry – are long-standing members of the Orange Order which advocates transferring between the unionist parties.
When asked if he would advise Ukip voters to vote for other unionists, Mr Farage said: “Yes, Eurosceptics. Genuine Eurosceptics. Not phoney Eurosceptcs.”
Pressed on who he was referring to, he said: “Well that depends of course because from party to party they will vary. We’re not endorsing other parties but we will say to people ‘use those transfers wisely, go for people who will support the out campaign in the referendum’.”
When asked specifically if he would urge voters to transfer to UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, who is in the Remain camp, Mr Farage said: “I support people who believe in an independent United Kingdom.” Laughing, he added: “I believe that answers it pretty clearly”.
Mr Farage referred to last year’s General Election results in Northern Ireland as “a sighter” in which the party “didn’t do badly”. In saying that, Mr Farage was either being uncharacteristically modest or had somewhat unrealistic expectations prior to last year’s election in which the party took more than 18,000 votes across 10 constituencies.
In doing so, it came ahead of the TUV in several seats and secured a vote which should see it almost guaranteed a seat in East Antrim – if it can replicate last year’s performance – and in a position where it would an increase in its vote would see it in contention in South Down, South Belfast and Strangford.
But since then there have been a series of rows, both nationally where Ukip’s leadership and backroom staff have been split, and in Northern Ireland where chairman Henry Reilly (who would have been the South Down candidate) was expelled after a row with Mr McNarry – and subsequently joined the TUV.
Despite those embarrassingly public problems, Mr Farage said that the party is “better organised in Northern Ireland” than it was a year ago.
Responding to a question about the turmoil in the party, Mr Farage played up the significance of the splits in Ukip’s rivals rather than denying that there have been bitter disputes in the party he leads: “Hang on, hang on, hang on. Half the Tory Party wants to kill the other half; they’re split down the bloody middle...about 200 of the Labour Party parliamentary party don’t want Corbyn as leader. Whatever little disputes we have had are tiddlers compared to everybody else.”
In relation to Mr McNarry, who is not standing in this election, Mr Farage was not firm on whether or not he can continue as Northern Ireland leader while not an elected public representative. “Let’s wait and see,” he said of the former UUP veteran, adding: “Clearly when you have a parliamentary group or an Assembly group, it must be for them to pick their own leader.
“That’s very, very important. Any national party that attempts to interfere with that is stirring up a hornets’ nest. The Assembly will choose a leader of the Assembly group. Whether that person then becomes the leader of Ukip in Northern Ireland, how we sort that out...let’s just wait and see.”
On abortion, Mr Farage said that he supports reform of the 1967 Act to reduce the time limit for terminations from 24 weeks, saying that it is “not making a lot of sense when we are sometimes doing elective surgery at 22 weeks, saving babies, and I think that there is a very compelling argument for a reduction”.
When asked if he would like to see the 1967 Act extended to the Province, he said: “I wouldn’t like to make it a party policy here. I would ask our people - whoever’s elected - to treat it as an issue of conscience. I view issues like that and religion and the death penalty as issues of conscience.”