'Anti-unionist coalition' wants to stop unionists winning two seats in European election says Danny Kennedy
UUP candidate Danny Kennedy has said that an "anti-unionist coalition" wants to stop unionists winning two seats in the upcoming European election.
Mr Kennedy was speaking after criticism of comments made by himself and party leader Robin Swann during his campaign launch on Friday.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said claims that if two non-unionists were elected it could lead to a border poll were "scaremongering".
Mr Eastwood said the only union the upcoming election was about is the European Union.
Sinn Fein also rejected his comments, saying that the union was not a key issue in the European election campaign.
However, Mr Kennedy has doubled down on his comments and said that he will make no apology for highlighting the issue.
"It is clear that if two non-unionists were to be elected, it would embolden Sinn Fein to increase calls for a border poll," the former Employment Minister said.
"The language used by a number of the candidates would make it appear that they are just anti-unionist rather than being pro-European, which adds to the concept of a latent anti-unionist coalition to stop Unionists winning two seats."
Mr Kennedy is expected to be in a three-way battle for Northern Ireland's third European Parliament seat.
The DUP's Diane Dodds and Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson are expected to be comfortably elected, leaving Mr Kennedy to battle remain-supporting SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance leader Naomi Long for the third seat. TUV leader Jim Allister is also expected to poll strongly.
Mr Kennedy said that Mr Eastwood was in no position to dictate to Ulster Unionists and that his party would be respecting the referendum result.
The UUP and Mr Kennedy both supported remain in the 2016 EU Referendum.
"It is no surprise that Colum Eastwood as an Irish nationalist should seek to ignore that result. Furthermore he shouldn’t seek to misrepresent unionists who voted remain," he said.
Mr Kennedy said that he can speak for unionists who voted both remain and leave and pledged to always put Northern Ireland first and work to strengthen the union.
"To unionist voters out there, I would encourage them to come out and vote for the most important union of all, the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland," he said.
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald said that Mr Kennedy's comments "smacked of desperation" and are "further evidence that the UUP is quickly disappearing down the rabbit hole".
"Brexit rather than the union is the key issue of this European election campaign," the East Londonderry MLA said.
"The two main unionist parties are on the wrong side of this argument as a majority of the people of the north voted to remain in the EU.
"Sinn Fein wants all of Ireland to remain in the EU but in the event of a Tory/DUP Brexit we want to see our economy and rights protected and no hardening of the border. That's why we need the insurance policy which is the backstop."
Belfast Telegraph Digital