Belfast Telegraph

I hope Johnson doesn't return as PM, blasts Aiken as he warns of risk to the Union

UUP leader Steve Aiken at the party’s headquarters in Strandtown Hall, Belfast
UUP leader Steve Aiken at the party’s headquarters in Strandtown Hall, Belfast

By Rebecca Black

Boris Johnson will be the first UK prime minister - if re-elected - to enter office with the Union in peril, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has claimed.

Steve Aiken, whose party has historic links to the Conservatives, said he hopes Mr Johnson is not re-elected as an MP next month.

He blasted the Prime Minister's proposed Brexit withdrawal deal as threatening to make Northern Ireland "a place apart" due to the proposed regulatory border.

The DUP - which was in a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives in the last Parliament - backed Mr Johnson's original offer to the EU which would have meant Northern Ireland diverging from the UK on some regulations, but only with a unionist veto.

However, Mr Johnson later agreed a deal with the EU which will mean Northern Ireland diverging on regulations and customs without a unionist veto, and the DUP has been strongly critical of that deal.

"The DUP on October 2 agreed to a border down the Irish Sea, that allowed Boris Johnson to march in with his withdrawal deal and if the withdrawal deal goes through, Northern Ireland will well and truly be a place apart," Mr Aiken said.

"But Boris Johnson's activities are not just affecting Northern Ireland, they are affecting the entirety of the United Kingdom, and he is probably going to be the first prime minister if he gets re-elected - which I hope he doesn't - he is going to be the first prime minister that comes back in a situation where the future of the Union itself is under threat."

Speaking to the PA news agency just weeks before the General Election, Mr Aiken also said his party will not re-enter devolved government without fundamental reform of the system, criticised the DUP as having been "damaging to the union", described the DUP and Sinn Fein's leadership of Northern Ireland as "disastrous" and expressed alarm at legacy proposals. Mr Aiken is the third leader of the party in three years, which has moved from backing the remain campaign in the Brexit referendum, to leave following the result and now back to remain.

Unlike the DUP, and several of his party's previous leaders, Mr Aiken is more socially liberal, for example, pro-choice in the abortion debate and supportive of same-sex marriage.

"This is about unionism for the 21st century," he said.

"We need to be making a very strong case for the Union for the 21st century, we need to be telling people that Northern Ireland as part of a culturally rich and vibrant United Kingdom - that's the best place for us to be.

"It needs to be a tolerant and inclusive society.

"I also believe in a United Kingdom that is supportive of all its people, some of my views might be left of centre and some of my ideas might be right of centre.

"I'm an ex-nuclear submariner, I'm fully supportive of Trident and the replacement of Trident.

"I believe our armed forces should be properly equipped and believe we should be spending 2% of our GDP on that, but I also want to make sure we get to something like zero net carbon by 2035, we need to have a target that we can aim for because climate change is one of the biggest fundamental problems that we have and we need to be able to deal with it."

He said he wants to see Ulster Unionists back on the green benches to "make sure Northern Ireland has an appropriate unionist voice again in Westminster".

The party has been without MPs since 2017 when Tom Elliott lost his seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone and Danny Kinahan lost in South Antrim. Both men are running on December 12 and are among the party's best hopes.

Mr Aiken ruled out any future UUP MPs taking part in pacts.

"Jeremy Corbyn is completely untrustworthy and Boris Johnson is potentially going to break up the union," he said.

Mr Aiken has been leader of the Ulster Unionists for less than a month, after being elected unopposed by party members on November 9.

Before he was even confirmed as leader, he found himself embroiled in a row over running a candidate in North Belfast, where the DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds is expected to come under pressure from Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane.

Criticism from across unionism saw Mr Aiken forced to row back from his position the party would run in all 18 constituencies and instead withdraw from the North Belfast race.

The former nuclear submarine commander, who entered politics in 2016, said the DUP and Sinn Fein have been "an absolute disaster" for Northern Ireland, which has been without devolved government for almost three years.

He also claimed the DUP is "damaging to the union" both over the withdrawal deal and the collapse of Stormont.

"They have completely fundamentally undermined everything to do with the union and that is a real concern," he said.

Mr Aiken also criticised legacy proposals for an Historical Investigations Unit.

"We are talking about creating yet another police force within Northern Ireland," he said.

When asked about police investigating police, Mr Aiken pointed out there is a Police Ombudsman's Office.

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