‘An existential moment’: The liberal likely contender for UUP leadership
Decorated British army veteran Doug Beattie is seen as a progressive on social issues
Ulster Unionist Party MLA Doug Beattie:
A decorated British army veteran being widely tipped as the next Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader faces an existential battle to push the party as a new liberal force in the North.
Doug Beattie, seen as a progressive on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion reform, is thought by many as the only credible candidate to replace outgoing leader Steve Aiken, who will formally resign his role on Monday.
Amid mounting internal disquiet over his stewardship, Mr Aiken stands aside as the fifth leader to preside over the declining fortunes of unionism’s once-dominant voice since former UUP leader David Trimble stood down in 2005.
Awarded a Military Cross for bravery during a career as a soldier spanning more than three decades, Mr Beattie, an MLA for Upper Bann, has yet to announce his intention to stand for leadership.
Among other observers, Alex Kane, a commentator and former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party, says the party “really doesn’t have anyone else” to take over at a time when unionist leadership is in disarray.
While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is also scrambling to appoint a successor to ousted leader Arlene Foster, Mr Kane says Mr Beattie would have “no choice” but to open up a new fight for unionism that is neither evangelical nor socially conservative.
“The leadership of the UUP matters only if it presents a choice,” says Mr Kane.
“The UUP say they are not the same as the DUP, but most people think they end up doing the exact same thing, nudging in behind them, even eventually on issues like Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“It just confuses people, and soft unionists go to the Alliance party.”
Mr Beattie is a “bona fide 100 per cent liberal” but will have to contend with many in his party who are “hardcore against” people in the North having the same rights on the likes of abortion or same-sex marriage as are afforded to citizens in the rest of the UK.
But, Mr Kane predicts, he will, if successfully ratified by the party’s governing Ulster Unionist Council, embark on a “full-throated” bid to claw back voters who have abandoned mainstream unionism over its social and moral stance.
“Given his military background, he doesn’t look behind him and ask what the corporals, sergeants and privates think of abortion and moral issues,” says Mr Kane.
“He will say we are in the same battle together, so let’s go together. It will be about unionism defending equality of UK citizenship. I think he is capable of doing that but it is an existential moment for the UUP.”
The party currently has 10 MLAs and one Minister in the Stormont Executive, former leader and the Minister for Health Robin Swann.
Confirming his resignation in a letter to the party chairman, Mr Aiken said, “It has become clear to me that if we are to achieve the breakthrough in the forthcoming Assembly elections, we will need to drive further ahead.”
“The last few months have been a momentous time for our union and for Northern Ireland,” he wrote.
“It is also a time when unionism, more than ever, needs positive, hopeful and progressive leadership; leadership which I strongly believe only the Ulster Unionist Party can provide.”
Meanwhile, the DUP has banned its members – including Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots, the challengers to take over as party leader after a secret ballot of its 28 MLAs and eight MPs on Friday next – from speaking publicly about the race.
Both Mr Donaldson and Mr Poots have pitched for support through internally distributed documents to elected representatives focused on reforming organisational structures within the party as well as policy matters.
Both camps are claiming they have the numbers, and a tight race is being predicted by observers. Neither side would be happy with a simple majority of 19, which will be seen as a split in the party.