No Swann song yet for Ulster Unionism, says new leader
Six months on from succeeding Mike Nesbitt as Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann faces his party's annual conference this weekend. He tells Political Corresspondent John Manley why believes the UUP can bounce back and why he's opposed to an Irish language act.
Robin Swann will face the Ulster Unionist Party’s annual conference this weekend for the first time as leader.
He took over the UUP’s top job after May’s assembly election saw a further decline in support for the party that once dominated regional politics.
It now has 10 MLAs compared to the 30 that it secured in the election 19 years ago and now ranks as Stormont’s fourth largest party after the SDLP.
The UUP also lost its two Westminster representatives in June's general election.
The North Antrim MLA says he wouldn’t have taken the leader's job if he didn’t think he could revive the party’s fortunes.
The 46-year-old refutes any suggestion that the UUP’s days are numbered and is confident that the party will outlive him.
“We’ve a proud, strong history and we have a proud, strong future,” he told The Irish News.
However, his strategy for arresting the decline appears vague.
“We’re trying to move unionist politics away from fear, as that’s where it’s been mandated these last couple of elections,” he says.
“It’s not about voting for us it’s about not voting for them – that has to change.”
He blames Stormont’s two largest parties for instilling the climate of fear.
“They have put Northern Ireland into a position where politics is about fear not opportunity,” he says.
“We’re about trying to get politics that’s about policy and people rather than that continual fear of the other side.”
When asked for examples of his party’s fresh approach, he points to its desire for a single health body in the north, like that which oversees education.
Another example is the Ulster Unionists’ bid to create a regional manufacturing strategy, which he says was stifled by the DUP before the assembly collapsed in January.
“Nearly 20 years after the Belfast Agreement I think we should have normalised more than we have,” the UUP leader says.
Mr Swann insists that in upcoming elections “Ulster Unionists will stand as Ulster Unionists” and that there will be “no pacts and no deals” with the DUP. However, he qualifies this by pointing out that “cooperation is different from pacts”.
“We will work with others of the same mindset to protect the union,” he says.
While not dismissing Mike Nesbitt’s courtship of the SDLP and his predecessor’s pledge to give his second vote preference to nationalism in May’s election, you sense the new UUP leader will be much more cautious.
“At that time we were working well in opposition together with the SDLP and politics has to move on,” he says.
“I’ve no problem working with the SDLP though political alliances aren’t something that’s on the cards at the minute.”
One area where the Ulster Unionists diverge significantly from the SDLP is on an Irish language act, which Mr Swann remains opposed to “in any form”.
He has met Irish language advocacy groups and points out that “we haven’t seen detail of any legislation” but nonetheless believes it will further politicise the Irish language.
“In regards to signage and other aspects, you could actually be looking at the repartition of Northern Ireland if in some places Irish gets priority over English,” he says.
“We’ll no longer be reliant on flags or painted curb stones – you’ll know whose territory you’re in by the road signs.”
He also has reservations about the provision to learn Irish in schools and the potential recruitment of Irish speakers into the civil service, which he claims is “discrimination”.
The North Antrim MLA believes adequate provision was made for the Irish language in the Good Friday Agreement through “protections and promotions”.
“That it is now used as a red line to block the formation of an executive is unacceptable,” he says of Sinn Fein’s demand for an act na Gaeilge.
An advocate of Brexit in last year’s referendum, Mr Swann believes that if the European Union had showed greater willingness to change when David Cameron sough reforms then “we wouldn’t be in position we are in”.
He believes that Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole will be better off “if it works out… if it works out the way that it was sold to us.”
However, he has misgivings about how the negotiations are progressing.
“We could be in a far better, more detailed place in terms of how things are going to work,” he says. “We see intransigence from Brussels and possibly Westminster - we’re not getting it right.”
He believes the UK cannot remain in the single market and customs union while honouring the electorate’s desire to leave the EU.
He rejects calls for Northern Ireland to be given special status but believes the Republic should seek bespoke arrangements that will have benefits on both sides of the border.
Mr Swann believes his party represents “broad church” and while he himself remains opposed to same sex marriage, he says he will allow a free vote if and when legislation comes before the assembly. Nor is he "minded" to sign a petition of concern but won't say whether he'll whip his MLAs to ensure they don't sign.
“One of the differentials between us and the DUP is matters of conscience – It’s not something that I see as a threat to the party,” he says.
“Others suggest we’re weak because we can’t take a party line but it’s actually braver and stronger for a party to allow its members to make their own minds up.”