Northern Ireland news

Robin Swann derides DUP for damaging unionism

Robin Swann believes the DUP handled the invitation to meet Pope Francis badly. Picture by Mal McCann
  • "Narrative from DUP isn't how most unionists see themselves"
  • "Westminster has turned its back on Northern Ireland"
  • "Union is challenged at the minute by Brexit"

UUP leader Robin Swann believes these are challenging times for unionism. Ahead of this weekend's annual conference he tells Political Correspondent John Manley why his party's larger rivals are doing little to help matters.

ROBIN Swann is surprisingly jovial given the state of political landscape the Ulster Unionist leader currently surveys. As he approaches this weekend’s second party conference as leader, the political force that once dominated Northern Ireland is a mere shadow of its former self. The UUP lost its two remaining MPs in last year’s general election, while its most high-profile elected representative will be made redundant in March, and all of this while political unionism faces an image problem and the union is being jeopardised by Brexit.

Add to this vista a mothballed Stormont and there is little for the North Antrim MLA to celebrate. Nevertheless, Mr Swann insists the Ulster Unionist Party remains relevant, though he concedes some of this is a result of the bad publicity that has dogged the DUP in recent months.

“The narrative coming from the DUP isn’t how many unionists see themselves,” he tells The Irish News in his Stormont office.

The Renewable Heating Incentive scandal has exposed the “outworkings of the DUP”, according to the Ulster Unionist leader.

“When people hear of special advisers running the place, while ministers were more interested in getting photographs taken than reading legislation, it’s turned a lot of them off,” he says, adding that unionism generally has been tarnished.

The conduct of North Antrim MP Ian Paisley is also damaging, the UUP leader believes. As one of the DUP MP’s constituents, Mr Swann took advantage of the opportunity to sign the recall petition that came in the aftermath of Mr Paisley’s 30-day suspension from Westminster. Paid advocacy on behalf of the Sri Lankan government was “unacceptable”, the UUP leader says, adding that his MP should have ”done the right thing” and unilaterally resigned ahead of contesting a by-election.

He believes the logistics of the petition – just three venues across an expansive, rural constituency – discouraged people from signing and helped Mr Paisley avoid having to defend his seat.

His DUP counterpart Arlene Foster’s snubbing of an invitation to meet Pope Francis in Dublin has also reflected badly on unionism, Mr Swann says, adding that unionism should be seeking “converts and champions” rather than alienating Catholics who are content in the union.

“I can’t understand why they didn’t send anybody,” he says of the Dublin civic reception for the pontiff which was attended by UUP MLA Robbie Butler and other representatives from the north’s parties.

“I know Arlene said it was a personal invitation but if as leader I didn’t delegate that responsibility to someone it would be quite strange – I’d get somebody to represent the party because it’s not about me, it’s about party representation.”

When it comes to Brexit, Mr Swann believes there’s a divergence in the DUP's message depending on who’s talking, but generally it’s aggressive.

“The DUP are playing their style of politics, which is bullying and ransom – that doesn’t help the unionist cause,” he says.

The rise of English nationalism at Westminster and MPs playing lip-service to the union is also a concern for the UUP leader.

“Westminster has turned its back on Northern Ireland – the lack of knowledge from many backbenchers is shocking,” he says.

“They profess to be unionists but I believe they don’t know what that means.”

He believes there is a “hardcore of Conservative Brexiteers” who would “happily hive off Northern Ireland” to deliver their “pure Brexit”.

“And that’s a Brexit for the south east of England rather than the whole of the UK – there’s even some who would be happy to see the back of Scotland too,” he says.

Mr Swann concedes that the “union is challenged at the minute by Brexit” but argues that if the UK’s withdrawal from EU is “done right”, then the bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be strengthened.

He favours a comprehensive trade agreement and believes this is on the cards, with the backstop being used as a distraction that will never be implemented. The outcome will be a “customs arrangement” rather than Britain remaining in the customs union but he concedes that the two will have many similarities.

Asked whether he’d vote again to leave the EU – as he did against the advice of his then leader Mike Nesbitt – Mr Swann hesitates and is ultimately non-committal but says he does not support a second referendum.

He’s not optimistic about the imminent return of the Stormont executive and acknowledges that the party will miss the profile Europe gives Jim Nicholson and the party. There are few reasons to be cheerful but Robin Swann keeps smiling.

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