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Robin Swann tells conference that it's time for voluntary coalition

UUP Robin Swann said his party would not sell its principles for electoral gain. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann has urged the secretary of state to abandon Stormont's mandatory coalition in the face of continued political deadlock.

In a call likely to be rebuked by nationalists, the UUP leader used his inaugural conference speech in Armagh's City Hotel to attack demands for an Irish language act.

In a speech peppered with criticisms of Sinn Féin, the North Antrim MLA, who in April succeeded Mike Nesbitt as leader, said he was “sick” of political progress being held up “because one party is being swung by the tail by a TD who has no mandate in Northern Ireland”.

“It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an executive of the willing – a voluntary coalition.”

He urged Secretary of State James Brokenshire to begin the process of scrapping mandatory coalition.

“It's time to leave behind parties that cannot govern; parties that are incompetent at governing; parties that cannot agree a way forward,” he said.

Mr Swann's speech to around 350 party members did not mention the DUP or the illegal UDA by name. However, he was critical of the “relationship between what's termed political unionism and paramilitaries”.

“Let me be clear on the issue of the continuing existence of paramilitary groups, whether republican or loyalist – you have no place or role to play in a democratic society, and almost twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, it is long since time that you left the stage,” he said.

“What this party will not do in any circumstances, will be to give political cover, or show any ambiguity which allows any individual or group to be community workers by day and extortionists or political bullies by night.”

He said the UUP would not trade its principles for “possible cheap electoral gain by buying votes, whilst turning a blind eye or ignoring unacceptable practices”.

Mr Swann spoke of the his party's two disastrous election results earlier this year and paid tribute to those who had lost their seats at Westminster and Stormont.

He said the party needed to “shake off past perceptions” and that it was time for a “new unionism”.

“I am more convinced than ever that it is this party that offers the vehicle for unionism that will secure our place in the United Kingdom for generations to come,” he said.

He said it was time for Ulster Unionists to be “radical moderates”.

“Conference, look at what the extremes have done for our country – crisis and stalemate and talks process after talks process,” he said.

The North Antrim MLA said the north was disadvantaged in the face of Brexit because devolution was suspended.

“At a time when the United Kingdom is negotiating its exit from the European Union, and there is no functioning executive to speak for Northern Ireland, and if a good Brexit deal cannot be agreed, Northern Ireland may have more to lose than any other part of the country - yet the lack of a functioning executive significantly weakens our position compared with that of Wales or Scotland,” he said.

Mr Swann said any Brexit deal that created a frontier between the north and Britain would be “totally unacceptable”.

He said there was no point “trying to rerun the referendum”.

“And I appeal to our nationalist friends and neighbours, don`t get sucked into fighting the battles of the past over Brexit,” he said.

“If this is turned into questioning Northern Ireland`s constitutional position, we will be winding the clock back by decades.”

The UUP leader criticised Sinn Féin demands for the implementation of previous agreements and accused republicans of failing to show the respect they were demanding of others.

“Sinn Fein demand respect when they themselves refuse to show it - it is time to end the hypocrisy,” he said.

He said the UUP had “no issue” with those who cherish the Irish language but he again rejected calls for legislation to promote and protect the language.

“It is not scaremongering to express concerns that legislation would lead to further division in society,” he said.

“We would no longer be reliant on flags or painted kerbstones – we would know whose territory we were in by the road signs.”

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