Kennedy hits back at claim he's whipping up fears over a border poll
Ulster Unionist candidate Danny Kennedy has said an "anti-unionist coalition" wants to stop unionists winning two seats in the 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 campaign.
However, Mr Kennedy doubled down on his comments and said 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 Regional Development 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 faces 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 re-elected, leaving him to battle Remain-supporting Mr Eastwood and Alliance leader Naomi Long for the remaining 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.
He and his party 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.
He 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 added.
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald said Mr Kennedy's comments "smacked of desperation" and were "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," she 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."