Kennedy says unionist voter apathy could aid those pushing for Border poll
Ulster Unionist European candidate anxious not to be elbowed aside by either SDLP or Alliance leaders
Danny Kennedy: “I have really enjoyed being out on the political stump again”
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) candidate in the European elections, Danny Kennedy, lost his Newry and Armagh assembly seat in the 2017 poll, and apart from the past six months, when he worked with a south Armagh victims’ group, he was signing on, looking for work, taking part in job interviews.
As a former minister for employment and learning that was as ironical as it was chastening, but he took it on the chin.
“When you win an election, you find out about others. When you lose an election, you find out about yourself,” he says.
He also cites the famous Nietzsche line, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “That’s right, that is absolutely it.”
He adds that it was the support of his family and friends and a “huge amount of goodwill from across the board” that helped him through.
“That is what humbled me the most; people saying we are sorry you are not there, and we are sorry things did not work out. We hope you will be back.”
Now he is about to take part in yet another job interview – this time in front of a selection panel of 1.3 million people on May 23rd. They will decide which three candidates Northern Ireland sends to the European parliament for, as Kennedy says, “five days, five weeks or five years”.
Kennedy knows that two of those seats seem securely allocated to Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson and the DUP’s Diane Dodds, and that the contest for the final seat is between himself, Colum Eastwood of the SDLP and Naomi Long of Alliance.
Kennedy, who is 59 and was first elected to Newry and Mourne Council 34 years ago, was chosen as UUP candidate after Jim Nicholson, who held the seat for his party for 40 years, decided it was time to call it a day.
Kennedy says it’s good to be once more politically engaged. “It is going really well. I have really enjoyed being out on the political stump again. I feel the reception has been very warm, very welcoming and very friendly.
“All the pundits say that the third seat is up for grabs, and obviously Naomi and Colum, as well as elbowing each other, are trying to elbow me out of contention as well. It makes it an interesting contest, no doubt about it.”
Kennedy says to withstand those challengers the “unionist family must stick together” and, just as important, come out to vote. He will need decent transfers from Dodds and from Jim Allister if the Traditional Unionist Voice leader and candidate is eliminated before him during the count, as seems likely.
“Voter apathy could well be an issue, particularly on the unionist side. I would be concerned about that,” he says.
Brexit has exercised republicans and nationalists, but he is not sure that the “same levels of excitement exist within the unionist community”.
Kennedy is in the unusual position of being a former Remainer but now subscribing to the argument that the people of the UK as a whole voted to leave and irrespective of Northern Ireland voting to stay that as a unionist he must go with the UK vote.
He says some of the upheaval in Britain over Brexit is upsetting. He refers to the BBC Question Time weekly programme where some of the debate between Leavers and Remainers can be “pretty aggressive”.
He feels people would need to calm down. “What does it remind you of? Of some of our worst excesses. We need to be careful to avoid that not only on a local level but on a national [British] level.”
Kennedy knows that regardless of the type of election that is conducted in the North, that constitutional matters always intrude.
On the anti-Brexit side the argument is getting two Remainers elected would send a message to London that Northern Ireland won’t tolerate a hard Brexit, and that perhaps the referendum result itself might even be overthrown by a second plebiscite.
He says it would send another message as well. “If two non-unionists are elected I think that presumably would give impetus for republicans and Sinn Féin to say they have grounds for calling a Border poll. I am not sure if the unionist community is totally aware of that.”
It is likely to be a point hammered home in the final stages of this campaign as Kennedy seeks to galvanise the broad unionist community to get him back working again.
LIST OF CANDIDATES RUNNING FOR THREE SEATS
Jim Allister, Traditional Unionist Voice
Martina Anderson, Sinn Féin
Clare Bailey, Green Party Northern Ireland
Amandeep Singh Bhogal, Conservative
Diane Dodds, DUP
Colum Eastwood, SDLP
Robert Hill, UKIP
Danny Kennedy, UUP
Naomi Long, Alliance
Neil McCann, Independent
Jane Morrice, Independent