LAURA MCMULLAN talks to recently retired UUP MEP Jim Nicholson about his Armagh roots, his passion for agriculture, and his fears over Brexit
The very slight but still not imperceptible Armagh twang would suggest otherwise, but Jim Nicholson wasn’t actually born in the Orchard County, even though he’s lived there basically all his life.
“I like to say I didn’t need the Belfast Agreement to get me an Irish passport; I was born in Donegal and spent the first nine months of my life there,” the former UUP MEP, who bowed out of politics just earlier this year, says.
“My mother was from Donegal and my father was from Co Down, and they met in Co Meath. Then in 1925 they bought the farm in Armagh and moved there.”
Jim was one of five siblings; he has one brother and three sisters, one of whom has sadly passed away.
Now aged 74, the weekly flights over to the European Parliament are finally a thing of the past, and he’s determined to “enjoy whatever is left” of his time.
“Yes, it was a very difficult decision,” he says, responding to the obvious question about his announcement back in April that he wouldn’t be standing again in the European elections the following month.
“I remember Enoch Powell saying that all political careers end in failure - but politicians don’t know when to quit.
“For me, it was time to go, after 30 years, two new knees and major surgery on my back. I was always taught you had three score years and 10, so I’m on borrowed time now!”
As is common knowledge, Jim grew up on a farm; in fact he left school at the age of 15 to work on it.
“I think my teacher realised that it was a waste of time trying to put any more education into me,” he laughs, only half joking.
He also reveals that he had a stoppage in his speech when he was at school, and recalls the feeling of panic he had as his turn approached to read aloud to the class.
“When I got up I wouldn’t be able to get a word out. I’m still prone to it even now when I’m under pressure, but I know how to control it and can work my way out of it.”
Indeed, for this young lad from the country, growing up, the horses he ploughed with and the animals on his father’s farm were his only audience.
Who knew he would rise through the ranks of the Ulster Unionist Party to become one of its most established and esteemed politicians?
But his rural roots remain close to his heart.
“Life, from a farming point of view, was so different back then,” he says. “I remember my father ploughing with a horse and my mother keeping hens, and using Tilly and hurricane lamps to extend the light.
“We used to come home from school and go out and pull turnips - now that would have put muscles in you.
“But people survived and they were happy and content - maybe a whole lot happier than they are, quite frankly, today, when they don’t have time to talk to each other because they’re chasing their tails all the time.”
Falling into politics was a move that happened more by accident than design.
“When I left school it wasn’t my ambition to be a politician,” he says. “I was the Secretary for the old Mid Armagh Constituency Association, and a vacancy had come up on the Council.
“I was discussing it with Michael Armstrong (UUP politician) and I said, ‘who are we going to get to fill this vacancy?’, and he said, ‘I think I’m sitting beside him.’”
At the time, Jim was still juggling farming with his Ulster Unionist meetings, and life was busy.
“I farmed all day, came home and changed the trousers and the shoes, and went out to a meeting, then came back in again in a couple of hours and went back out to the farm,” he recalls.
“But you get used to that (kind of life); if you want to do it, you will.”
It was the late Harold McCusker who encouraged him to put his name forward for election to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Westminster beckoned after that, but he experienced a momentary blip, for want of a better word, in his political career in the late 80s, when he failed re-win his Newry and Armagh seat in the by-election which followed the mass exodus of unionist MPs in December 1985 as part of a wider protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
He returned to farming, and he was fortunate to be able to do so.
“I’ll tell you one thing, politics is the most precarious career you can be in. If you get pushed out of it, there’s not much else out there for you. You’re kind of not welcomed by anyone.”
His election to the European Parliament in 1989 marked the beginning of a huge but fulfilling and challenging learning curve,
Jim says the major difference he observed between it and Westminster was the lack of “confrontational” politics, which was often very present in our own UK government.
“In Europe it’s all about compromise and consensus,” he continues.
“And here I was, this greenhorn farmer from Armagh, going into this scenario. But I very soon learned how to work it.”
And he admits that another aspect that came as something of a shock to his system was having to sit across the negotiating table from politicians from the South.
“This was 1989, this had never really happened before,” he says. “Yet I found that they had very similar views to me when it came to representing agriculture as I did, and many times I agreed more with them than I did with my own UK government, who were not always so positive towards farming.
“Because the thing is, Europe heavily supports the concept of the family farm. And that is mainly dictated by the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the Irish too.”
Jim says that some farmers here “blame Europe for lots of things like bureaucracy and red tape”, but he warns that this won’t end simply because of Brexit.
“I can guarantee farmers now that this will only increase, because that’s the way life is going. You have to be realistic. We have all these other issues now, like climate change and the environment, that people are becoming more and more aware of.
“I can maybe say this better than some others - sometimes farmers need to be protected from themselves, because they would keep driving on, and sometimes we need to stop and ask ourselves, are we really doing this for anyone’s benefit? Are we really getting on any better?
“I believe that we inherited this land that we live on and we have a duty to hand it on to the next generation in at least as good a condition, and the sad thing is we’re now coming to the stage where that’s being seriously questioned.
“I am not someone who gets up on their high horse about this sort of thing, but I do believe we can’t wait another 50 years to find out that what we’re doing is wrong. I think there are things we could do today.
“We can no longer look at life and judge how we do things today by the way we did them 50 years ago. And that’s a challenge not just to farmers but anybody who lives in a rural society.”
I ask him if he believes veganism and the associated lobbying movement poses a serious threat to agriculture, and he says that it, along with all other such challenging, simply must be faced as they arise and not ignored or shrugged off.
“It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in, farming or anything else, you have to respond to challenges like veganism. That is not going to change.”
And as our conversation moves on, it’s clear that in Jim’s opinion, certain mindsets need to be seen as challenges too, and must be cracked open in order for progress to follow.
“People sit back and complain about Europe but yes, it has it’s problems, and so does Northern Ireland, and there’s no point sniping and sitting at the opposite end of the table and refusing to agree. You have to look forward.”
‘We must always remember the past’
Jim Nicholson was an experienced politician who had spent 30 years standing up in Strasbourg addressing his fellow MEPs and speaking on all manner of important issues.
But there was one subject which he admits he could never get used to talking about - The Troubles. “Having to stand up in Strasbourg and refer to yet another bomb or atrocity having happened in Northern Ireland was the one thing that tore me apart,” he says.
“I never, ever got used to that - knowing it had happened, and was happening back home, and standing up and extending sympathy to the family, aware that it was never enough to those who had suffered the loss.
“Even to this day it’s hard. I know too many people who have been affected and I’ve walked behind the corteges of too many murdered policemen and UDR men.”
But Jim is resolute in his belief that we have “moved away from that” - and must continue to do so in order for progress to be made.
“We must always remember the past, but we have got to go on and build a future for those of u
‘Backing Brexit is like jumping off a cliff without knowing where you’re going to land’
For Jim Nicholson, there were numerous highs and lows during his time at the European Parliament, but what always stood out as memorable were the people he worked with.
”For those first 15 years, myself, John Hume and Ian Paisley were the face of Northern Ireland plc,” he says.
“I’m sure we aggravated each other, but believe it or not we got on very well together, and we did our best to work for everybody in Northern Ireland.”
He describes Jacques Delors, who was President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, as “the best politician I ever worked”, hailing him as someone who was “brilliant in everything he did”, and always “very clear that he did not get involved in local disagreements.”
Says Jim: “He came in from the top. In those days, it was very much a case of, ‘we want to help you, we don’t want to interfere, you’ve got to solve your own problems, but we will help you get there.’”
He also describes Enoch Powell as “an amazing man”, and the late UUP leader James Molyneaux as “a man of tremendous stature and charm and ability and quietness.”
However, he doesn’t have the same confidence in the nation’s current leader, and admits he sees Boris Johnson as someone who is more concerned for his own political career than “standing up for the people of Northern Ireland.”
And he reiterates his “horrible suspicion” that the current political wave propelled forward by the Brexit row is one that “will not end well”, adding:“Backing Brexit is like jumping off a cliff without knowing where you’re going to land.”