Belfast Telegraph

Unionist majority will not be around for very much longer - Mike Nesbitt clarifies comments reported in Australia

By Claire O'Boyle

Mike Nesbitt has spoken out to clarify a number of remarks he was said to have made which were reported in an Australian newspaper - including that unionists "would not be worse off in a United Ireland" compared to a post-Brexit UK.

The former UUP leader was reported to have said the unionist majority here will not last long, and called Brexit an "existential threat to the UK".

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Nesbitt addressed the three points, and said it was in fact unionist friends, and not him, who had suggested they would not be worse off in a united Ireland after Brexit.

In the article, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Nesbitt was quoted as saying: "Some of my unionist friends are saying for the first time to me: 'Exactly how would I be worse off in a united Ireland (compared to Britain after Brexit)?' The answer is they wouldn't be worse off."

However, yesterday the politician insisted this was not his view.

"The reality is I've been surprised to hear a small number of my unionist friends asking questions about a united Ireland and saying they don't believe they'd necessarily be any worse off," he said.

"But for one thing, where would the £12.6bn block grant come from? The annually managed expenditure budget? I have said this a few times before, and it's still my position."

Mr Nesbitt, who led the UUP for five years until the party took a hammering at last year's Stormont and Westminster elections, was also quoted as saying that the "unionist majority will not be around for very much longer … nationalism is now energised."

He explained: "That's an issue of the population figures - the demographics are there for everyone to see.

"But my position on this is that this means we must become persuaders of the benefits of remaining in the UK.

"We must make the United Kingdom a comfortable place for the people of Northern Ireland to live, make our health and education systems and everything else work for the people. If that's the case, if people are comfortable in their lives, then the constitutional question goes off the agenda."

The Strangford MLA said his comments on Brexit were intended as a warning, particularly if Northern Ireland's position was not handled properly.

He said: "What I was saying, as a unionist who supported Remain, is that we don't know what Brexit is going to look like.

"I accept that Britain joined up as one unit, and we will leave that way. But unless the negotions are well-handled and the particular needs of Northern Ireland - and Scotland, for that matter - are met, then there is a risk of this becoming an existential threat to the UK.

"I do have concerns, and the fact we have no functioning Executive to act for Northern Ireland does not help the situation."

Mr Nesbitt added: "The Union can and will be stronger with the right leadership that understands the threats and how to overcome them."

Elsewhere in his interview with the Australian paper, marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Nesbitt said Northern Ireland had improved in the years since the deal was signed on April 10, 1998 - but said the high hopes of the time had not been fulfilled.

"Despite the politics, people are just getting on with it," he said.

"Northern Ireland is a much more peaceful place.

"The Good Friday Agreement was an attempt to resolve a tension suffered on this island for centuries. The tension between an individual's sense of who they are, their identity, and territorial identity, where they are living.

"Has it worked? I am afraid it has not. For unionists this was a final settlement. For nationalists it's a staging post on an incomplete journey towards a united Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph

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