Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 14:37 UK

Profile: Jim Nicholson

By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

Jim Nicholson
Jim Nicholson is the longest serving of Northern Ireland's MEPs

Jim Nicholson's smiling face beams down from his big election posters accompanied by the slogan "Vote For Change".

This may seem a bit puzzling, given that the Armagh politician is the longest serving Northern Ireland MEP.

First elected to the European parliament 20 years ago, in successive elections Mr Nicholson came in third place, reliant on DUP transfers to haul him over the finishing line.

So what's the "change" this time?

Mr Nicholson's supporters point to the Ulster Unionist Party's recent deal with the Conservatives.

The candidate may be familiar but the tag-line is new. He is the first candidate to run for the Ulster Conservative and Unionist - New Force, or "Conservatives and Unionists" for short.

EU flag
The next European election takes place on June 4

Mr Nicholson argues that the "new force" will provide local voters with an opportunity to vote on national and international issues, in contrast to those who he describes as "solo voices from small regional parties".

Both the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives hope the arrangement will help them broaden their appeal, and arrest a decline, which saw Mr Nicholson's first preference vote fall from nearly 24% in 1994 to less than 17% in 2004.

Relations between Jim Nicholson and the Conservatives weren't always so positive.

Back in 1983 he was elected as MP for Newry and Armagh. But in 1985, together with other unionist MPs, he resigned his seat in protest against Margaret Thatcher's Anglo Irish Agreement.

All the unionists retained their seats in subsequent by-elections, with the exception of Jim Nicholson.

He lost out to the SDLP's Seamus Mallon, and proved unable to mount a comeback when population shifts made the constituency progressively more nationalist.

Euro realist

In the European parliament, Mr Nicholson is the only local MEP who serves as a "quaestor", one of six MEPs responsible for the parliament's financial and administrative matters.

He has also served on the parliament's agriculture, fisheries and transport committees.

A self styled "Euro realist" he supports retaining sterling, claiming the Euro zone has brought much pain and little gain to the economies involved.

He opposes the European constitution proposed in the Lisbon treaty and welcomes William Hague's pledge that a future Conservative government would hold a referendum on the treaty.

Mr Nicholson worked with other MEPs to secure £2bn in peace funding for Northern Ireland.

However, at a recent committee meeting at Stormont, the MEP was critical of the way in which the executive and assembly now deals with Europe.

He argued that it compared poorly with Scotland and Wales.

Mr Nicholson told the committee that the eyes of Brussels bureaucrats are no longer looking towards Belfast but are trained on the EU's new members in the East. Brussels, he explained, regards Northern Ireland as "a done deal".

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