Northern Ireland news

Doug Beattie tipped as next UUP leader as unionism faces significant realignment

Outgoing UUP leader Steve Aiken (left) with Doug Beattie, seen by many within the party as his likely successor. Picture by Arthur Allison

DOUG Beattie has emerged as the front-runner to become the next leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Political unionism was thrown into further flux after party leader Steve Aiken announced his resignation on Saturday.

It came 10 days after DUP leader Arlene Foster was forced to quit after an internal heave against her.

The announcement from the South Antrim MLA, who will remain as leader until a successor is chosen, was also prompted by mounting discontent within the party over his stewardship.

Mr Aiken is due to deliver a press conference at Stormont on Monday morning.

With his decision coming so soon after Mrs Foster's, unionism is set for a significant realignment ahead of next year's assembly election.

Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie is seen as the likely successor, with Lagan Valley MLA Robbie Butler also being tipped as a potential future leader.

But with just 10 MLAs to choose from, three of whom have already served as leader, the pool of contenders is small.

Mr Beattie was tipped to run for the party leadership in 2019, but opted not to run.

The 55-year-old assembly member remained tight-lipped on his intentions over the weekend, but did state that his decision in 2019 was directly linked to the circumstances of the time.

He said a leadership battle six weeks out from a general election and during the end phase of the Brexit transition period and the start of the Irish Protocol “was never a good idea”.

He added: “Circumstances and timings drive decisions unfortunately. I felt I had to put Northern Ireland first.”

A capable media performer, Mr Beattie is viewed as a moderate and progressive and a UUP under his leadership would be likely to focus on reclaiming some of the ground lost to the centrist Alliance Party in recent elections.

Awarded a Military Cross for bravery during a 34-year career as a British Army soldier, his unionist credentials would also be hard for political rivals to challenge.

In a letter to party chairman Danny Kennedy made public over the weekend, Mr Aiken said he believed he had taken the party as far as he could.

"To achieve our goals, we now need new leadership," he wrote.

Mr Aiken said he will remain in politics and continue as a South Antrim MLA.

Discussing his time as leader, Mr Aiken said he took pride in the party's decision to take on the challenging health minister portfolio when Stormont was restored in 2020.

He said his party colleague and former leader Robin Swann had been successful in his efforts to tackle the pandemic.

"However, despite our successes, it has become clear to me that if we are to achieve the breakthrough in the forthcoming Assembly elections, we will need to drive further ahead," Mr Aiken wrote to the party chairman.

"To represent the brand of unionism that builds on hope and not fear, and provides a clear, modern, alternative that will be both the future of our party and Northern Ireland, will require strong leadership." He insisted unionism needed positive, hopeful and progressive leadership.

"The last few months have been a momentous time for our Union and for Northern Ireland," he wrote.

"It is also a time when unionism, more than ever, needs positive, hopeful and progressive leadership; leadership which I strongly believe only the Ulster Unionist Party can provide.

"Our party has delivered for the people of Northern Ireland for many years and in the centenary of Northern Ireland continues to do what is right - not just for unionists, but for everyone."

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