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Voters facing dilemma in wake of UUP chief Doug Beattie’s travails

Unionist leader ‘embarrassed’ and ‘ashamed’ by compromising tweets prior to entering politics

Doug Beattie has a reputation as a straight talker.

A decorated former soldier who has served in the British army in Iraq and Afghanistan, he readily acknowledges he lacks the polish of some career politicians and can be "a little rough around the edges" but is honest and up-front about his views and says he sticks to his principles, even if they cost him votes.

The message is what you see is what you get; what then should party colleagues and voters make of the historic tweets which have left his political career hanging in the balance?

Read back to him in the cold light of a BBC radio studio on Tuesday, Beattie was clearly shaken; in his second lengthy BBC interview in as many hours he admitted he was “embarrassed, ashamed ” and was “absolutely destroyed” personally by the controversy.


Dating from approximately 2011 to 2014 – before Beattie entered politics – they include derogatory comments about women, Muslims and members of the Traveller community which have been criticised as misogynistic and racist.

He has apologised repeatedly, saying “I’ll not be the first person to do or say something wrong . . . what’s important is you stand up and face your past and I’m standing up and facing what I did wrong in my past.”

This seems to have saved him; regardless of the content of the tweets, it is seen as to his credit that he is handling this crisis in his usual forthright manner.

This was emphasised by UUP deputy leader, Robbie Butler, who announced Beattie had the unanimous support of the party's MLAs and officers and praised "the manner in which he has responded" to the controversy.

This was reinforced by senior UUP sources, who said while the tweets were unacceptable and could not be justified Beattie had faced it head on, and the feeling within the party was that he still remains their best choice as leader.

With an Assembly election looming by May at the latest, stability is more attractive than uncertainty, not least given the lack of potential replacements.

Of the UUP’s tally of 10 MLAs, three are former party leaders and the others have shown little enthusiasm for the leadership in the past, and it is far from clear that Butler – mooted as a possible and perhaps the only, alternative – would be interested .

As the party’s third new leader in four years, Beattie’s appointment in May was seen as the beginning of a renaissance for the UUP under his brand of liberal, inclusive unionism which was reflected in the so-called “Beattie bounce” in opinion polls.

Though this had levelled out – in the most recent LucidTalk poll, published on Saturday, the UUP remained at 14 per cent, on a par with Alliance and three points behind the DUP – Beattie remained personally popular with the highest personal approval rating of any of the North’s party leaders.

‘Positive unionism’

If that poll was to be carried out today, says Jon Tonge, Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool, it would be a different story; Beattie, inevitably, has been damaged but so too has his party and his attempts to reinvigorate it by attracting a broader spectrum of voters to his brand of "positive unionism".

“It’s particularly bad for the UUP because they haven’t got enough women members and they haven’t got enough women voters and so to be associated with misogyny couldn’t be worse for a party that really does need to overcome the image of being pale, male and stale,” says Tonge.

The Beattie bounce “which was already, frankly, fading is over”, he says, “and any lingering hope his party might have had of getting close to the DUP’s vote share, never mind seats, is probably over as a consequence of this”.

“The DUP will now really be able to portray itself as the only part that can stop Sinn Féin [becoming the largest party] so the implications go beyond Beattie and whether he stays or goes.”

Beattie on Tuesday began the work of repairing the damage, talking and apologising to MLAs and party officers.

Yet the fear will linger there could be more to come; there is also the knowledge it could haunt the party during the election campaign.

"The trouble is, if they keep him it's not going to go away. It'll be every time he does an interview, every time some female candidate knocks on a door," says Alex Kane, political commentator and former UUP head of communications.

With Doug Beattie, what you see is what you get. The difficulty, says Kane, is that has revealed a different side to “the Doug Beattie they thought they knew as leader who was pushing unionism towards a more progressive world.”

The question now facing voters, says Kane, “is which is the real Doug Beattie?”