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EU elections: Kennedy bids to rekindle political career

 By Ryan Morgan

As the electorate goes to the polls for the second time in a month later this week, former Unionist MLA and Bessbrook native, Danny Kennedy, is bidding to re-enter the political arena after a two-year sabbatical.

Mr Kennedy lost his seat in the 2017 Assembly elections and finding himself unemployed for the first time in almost 40 years, was forced to sign on the dole. Now the Bessbrook man is attempting a political comeback as an MEP, having been selected by the Ulster Unionist Party as their candidate for the European election. 

Having joined the party in 1974, Kennedy was first elected as Ulster Unionist’s MLA in Newry & Armagh in 1998, following the passage of the Good Friday Agreement and the re-establishment of Stormont. During his time in the Assembly, he was twice elevated to head government departments and also served as his party’s Deputy Leader. Following a lacklustre performance by the UUP at the 2017 election, Kennedy was one of six of its MLAs to lose his seat. He subsequently was forced to sign on and pursue alternative employment at Newry’s job centre, where staff reminded him that his previous visit to the facility was as Minister for Employment & Learning. 

Now, the former Minister is aspiring to rekindle his political career by standing as an MEP at this month’s European elections. He hopes to maintain the UUP’s seat in the European parliament, held by his colleague and fellow Armagh man, Jim Nicholson, for the last thirty years.  However, with a strong probability that the DUP and Sinn Féin will retain the first two of three MEP seats designated to the North, Kennedy is fighting off tight competition from the other unrepresented major parties for the last one.

According to a tracker poll conducted by LucidTalk this month, SDLP leader and candidate Colum Eastwood is currently the favourite for that final seat, garnering 13.1% of first preference votes, over a full percentage point higher than Kennedy at 11.8%. Additionally, while Alliance contender Naomi Long is trailing at 11.3%, that small gap could prove unnerving for the Bessbrook man, considering her selection as the most popular political leader in another recent poll and her party’s surge at the local elections in April. 

The UUP too, have reason to be pensive about their performance at the recent council elections, where a near 3% fall in their vote share resulted in the loss of thirteen councillors. Indeed, this outcome seems indicative of the downward trend they have experienced at most elections since the turn of the century. Their status as a major player is also threatened by the wide pool of unionist candidates running, which could further fracture their vote. Of particular concern is the presence of the Traditional Ulster Voice’s Jim Allister, who is currently polling at 8.5% of first preference votes.

Kennedy is hoping to brush off these challenges by running on a platform that reaches out to the needs of unionists across the Brexit divide. On the one hand, he is insistent that there should not be a second referendum on EU membership and that it would only deepen division and mistrust across the UK.  “The last thing that our country needs is a second referendum which would be incredibly polarising and damaging to people’s faith in our democratic system.” On the other hand, however, he wants to ensure that Brexit’s implementation will be considerate of both the North’s constitutional position in the UK and the functioning of its economy. He speaks of his keenness to deliver “a sensible Brexit which doesn’t undermine the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK and creates the opportunity for a positive trading relationship with our European neighbours.”

European elections will be held both north and south of the border this Thursday, the 23rd of May.