UUP leader says single unionist party would ‘stifle debate’ in NI

Swann acknowledges sizable task ahead to rebuild unionism in Northern Ireland

Newly elected Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann speaks during the party’s annual general meeting at the Crowne Plaza in Belfast. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

Newly elected Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann speaks during the party’s annual general meeting at the Crowne Plaza in Belfast. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA Wire

 

Newly installed UUP leader Robin Swann has told delegates at its Spring conference a single unionist party would “stifle debate” and “limit choice” in Northern Ireland.

At a hotel in Belfast on Saturday the North Antrim MLA said Northern Ireland needs a strong centre ground and that he will promote “a positive, confident and embracing unionism”.

Mr Swann takes over from Strangford MLA Mike Nesbitt, who announced his resignation as leader, last month after a disappointing Assembly election result.

The UUP dropped from 16 seats to 10 seats at the snap election on March 2nd and Mr Nesbitt said the “buck stops here” so quit the top job.

Mr Swann, a 45-year-old married father-of-two, said “standing at the great height of 5ft3ish” people have tried to bully and push him around in the past but that he will not allow this for himself or his party.

The only candidate to put their name forward for the role, in his first speech at party leader he acknowledged the sizable task ahead to rebuild unionism and referenced the words of former prime minister of Northern Ireland Captain Terence O’Neill when he said “Ulster is at a crossroads”.

He told delegates at the UUP annual general meeting his top priority was “resolving the chaos in the NHS” and that his party wants to see devolved government restored at Stormont but “there should be no back door deals”.

He spoke of the UUP credo being “Country 1st, Party 2nd, Self 3rd” and confirmed his commitment to put “service over self promotion, delivery over spin and integrity over arrogance”.

Unionism no longer has a majority

After last month’s Assembly election unionism no longer has a majority in the Assembly, the first time this has happened in the history of the state.

He warned that “republicanism is energised like we have rarely seen it before” and suggested his DUP rivals were responsible for this more so than Brexit.

“Some would suggest Brexit was the cause, but who really thinks the reckless talk of crocodiles or the tactless decision to remove a £50,000 means tested scheme for young people to learn Irish had any other impact but to drive people to the polls?,” he said.

“Unionism has felt the impact of the result. Unionism must learn from the result.”

He dismissed speculation about a single unionist political party as he believes this would “limit choice, stifle debate and quickly result in the depletion of Unionist votes at the ballot box”.

“Northern Ireland and unionism, needs a strong Ulster Unionist Party, ” he said.

“Remember this party has been the custodian of the Union from the first day of partition almost one hundred years ago, and will continue to be so for the next one hundred and beyond.

“We cannot however dwell on the past and must always be ready to embrace change and evolve.”

Mr Swann who has also served as the party’s chief whip at Stormont, chaired the Public Accounts Committee during the last mandate and is former president of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster.

He has pledged to promote the benefits of the unions with Britain, work toward a single education system and promote his firm belief in civil and religious liberty for all.

“My first act as leader is to launch a campaign where we will be enthusiastically and eagerly promoting the benefits of the Union,” he said.

The UUP has two MPs at Westminster, Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott, and as Brexit negotiations progress Mr Swann spoke of its “voice at the heart of Europe, ” Jim Nicholson MEP.

“For those of you, who heard Jim Nicholson admonish Michel Barnier the EU’s Chief Negotiator earlier this week, will know whenever Jim speaks from now on he will be listening,” he said.

Mr Swann closed his inaugural address by thanking Mike Nesbitt for his stewardship of the party and particularly for putting mental health issues on the political agenda.

He also thanked his wife Jennifer for her support and of his hope that their six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son grow up in a Northern Ireland very different from the one he grew up in.

He pledged that while some Stormont parties perhaps plan for and think about another election the UUP “will plan for and think about the next generation”.