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Jim Wells lifts lid on DUP meeting which decided party's Brexit stance

We were always anti-EU and debates had been held for decades, says party outsider

DUP MLA Jim Wells can not speak on behalf of the party after having the whip removed for speaking out against the leadership.
DUP MLA Jim Wells can not speak on behalf of the party after having the whip removed for speaking out against the leadership.

By Jonathan Bell

Jim Wells has lifted the lid on the crunch DUP meeting which decided which side the party would back in the EU referendum campaign which subsequently saw it catapulted into the centre of UK and EU politics.

He revealed there was no impact assessment presented on how a leave win would affect Northern Ireland and that there was no voices raised in support of remaining with the matter decided on within minutes although the meeting lasted "several hours".

He said given the party's opposition to the EU for over four decades - and the experience gathered over that time - it was an easy decision to make. He said the mechanics of how the UK departed - including for a solution to the Irish border - were not discussed. Nor was a presentation on the strengths or weaknesses of leaving or remaining done.

"There didn't need to be because there was such a huge body of experience of people around that table that knew exactly the problems the EU was causing to our economy," he said.

"Once we established the principle of leaving Europe the modalities would work out later... we were just concentrating on the getting out from under the yoke of the EU."

"Frankly we could see little positive in remaining."

Mr Wells - who has been ostracised by the DUP having had the party whip removed for speaking out against its leadership also said that while there was currently "uncertainty" around the UK's departure he was confident in "five or six years time we will look back and say we were right".

The DUP said the sanctions against Mr Wells remained in place and he was speaking in a personal view and not representing the party in any form.

"It is unclear what meeting Mr Wells is speaking about," a DUP spokeswoman added, "The Party Officers and DUP Executive Members set the policy of the party.”

Sinn Fein said it was more evidence of the DUP chasing a "Brexit fantasy".

We made right decision and each day we get more confident.

Veteran DUP man Wells made the revelations on the BBC Stephen Nolan show. He said he was at the DUP policy meeting - along with all the other MLAs and MPs - which took the decision to back leave for the 2016 poll.

He was asked what was discussed, as there was no debate on how leaving the EU would affect the border, businesses or farmers.

The South Down MLA said the meeting concentrated on the principle of what side to take and there had been an "entirely negative" experience among the party - which has held seats in the European parliament for decades - saying many saw the EU as "senseless bureaucracy, interference, meddling and control".

It was put to him that given the party's experience in the RHI scandal, would it not have been better to examine all the data and anaylsis in detail and it would have been healthier to consider the merits in remaining.

He added: "We didn't have the depth of knowledge on the RHI scheme that they had on the EU."

Mr Wells said there  was not a single voice of dissent. He was asked if former Finance Minister Simon Hamilton had spoken up. Mr Hamilton has continually refused to answer how he voted in the referendum.

Mr Wells said he had never seen the party as united on one issue as they are on Brexit and there was unanimity in backing leave. 

The former health minister also said he "struggled" to meet any unionists who advocated remain having knocked thousands of doors during the last election campaign. Although he did concede there would be a "small number" of DUP members on the remain side.

"I'm talking about the unionist community. Areas like Kilkeel because of the fishing industry I was genuinely shocked by the force of resentment to the EU."

He said many farmers were "fed up" with EU bureaucracy and the "nay-sayers of the Farmers' Union" did not speak for those in South Down. He said the burden of rules and regulations from the EU was costing farmers a fortunate, citing the nitrates directive which, he explained, meant farmers had to invest in slurry tanks for winter time storage as opposed to spreading the material.

He said it was a very expensive rule for farmers to adhere to but admitted he did not know if the directive should be scrapped or if it was beneficial to restrict the spread of nitrates in soil.

What's surprising you is that a party would have such an anonymous view on such an important subject.

The DUP politician of 43 years was asked that if during the meeting any numbers were discussed or data shared on how a leave vote would impact the local economy.

He said within the DUP the "universal view" based on decades of experience was leaving the EU would "ultimately benefit all of the economy of the UK and Northern Ireland".

"In the same way we have never had a statistical analysis of remaining as part of the Union, the DUP at its core we are a unionist party," he continued.

"It's not as if we were looking to join the EU, we had been in it in 40 years. We had direct statistical background information as to the impact it was currently having... and the decision was unanimous.

"And there has not been a raised eyebrow since despite all the facts and information we have been exposed to since .. we made the right decision.

"We feel vindicated and we see the attitude of the EU which has been so belligerent in negotiations we were right to try to get out of the institutions as quickly as possible.

"Apart from UKIP there is no more united party on this issue. And that has been the heart of the party since 1973. nobody who voted for us in the last 40 years would be in any doubt that the DUP would vote enthusiastically for leaving the EU.

"No one has said we made the wrong decision. We are not having a guilt phase here, we are not worried or concerned. We made the right decision and each day we get more confident."

In response the DUP said: "In June 2018, the Party informed all local media editors that the Party whip had been removed from Jim Wells. That remains the case. The operational note also stated:

“Any comments made by Mr Wells during broadcast or print press interviews are his personal opinions and should not be quoted by your organisation as representing the views of the Party.”

The statement added: "It is unclear what meeting Mr Wells is speaking about.  The Party Officers and DUP Executive Members set the policy of the party.”

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