The UUP has blasted former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown for stating that the Prime Minister should “never, ever put the country in the hands of an Ulsterman”.
Mr Ashdown was speaking on Sky News over the weekend, as it became clear Theresa May was seeking to strike a deal with the DUP in order to prop up her minority Tory administration.
Repeating the remarks on BBC’s the Nolan Show this morning, he explained it was a phrase first used by former Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1978.
Mr Ashdown said: “The then Labour government was seeking a majority and the Liberals asked why he didn’t involve the parties of Northern Ireland, to which Mr Callaghan said he had a principal, upon which national safety is based, that you never let the Ulsterman get their hands on the nation.”
Acknowledging the remarks were “shocking”, the ex-Liberal leader added: “He [Callaghan] didn’t mean Ulstermen were bad, but the politics in Northern Ireland are underlaid by sectarianism.
“It is not a good idea, however decent and honourable those politicians may be, to let sectarian issues that relate to Northern Ireland have an effect on the government of Britain.”
Ulster Unionist chief whip Steve Aiken MLA branded Mr Ashdown’s remarks “sneering and condescending”.
He also described the comments as “surprising”, given that Mr Ashdown was largely brought up in Northern Ireland.
Mr Aiken added: “I also wonder what his former colleague Lembit Opik makes of it.
“Some of the main leaders in business, in the public sector and in sport and the arts across the UK are from Northern Ireland.”
Mr Aiken, himself a senior Royal Navy veteran, also said: “The statement from the former Liberal Democrat leader will also come as news to all of the local men and women who are integral to the UK’s armed forces who have had, and continue to have, the safety and future of our country in our hands. If local people are good enough to rise to the top of our Armed Forces, they are good enough to play a role in British politics.
“Paddy Ashdown’s comments were offensive, crass, and totally hypocritical given the willingness of the Liberal Democrats, who were only too keen to jettison some of their core principles, especially over tuition fees, for the tawdry opportunity to share power with Cameron’s Tory Government.”