Newton Emerson: Buck stops with Beattie over UUP election mess

Columnist Newton Emerson casts a wry eye over the Ulster Unionists’ travails as well as the rest of the week’s big news stories

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Retired British Army colonel Tim Collins is to run for the Ulster Unionists as their North Down candidate in the next general election.
Col Collins is best known for his role in the Iraq War in 2003.
The last time an MP from the party was elected to North Down was 2010.
The current MP for the constituency is Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry, who first won the seat in 2019. following the retirement of independent unionist Lady Hermon. Pictured with UUP leader Doug Beattie 
Talks were reportedly taking place among unionist parties in a bid to find an agreed single unionist candidate but the UUP leader Doug Beattie says his party "does not do pacts".
UUP leader Doug Beattie with retired British Army colonel Tim Collins, who is to stand as the party's North Down candidate in the general election

The hapless UUP is making a mess of what should be its most promising election in years.

It has a solid chance of taking South Antrim from the DUP in the general election and returning to the Commons, where it has had no MPs since 2017. But the candidacy of Stormont health minister Robin Swann has been poorly presented, exposing him to accusations of abandoning his post.

Ready for battle Doug Beattie and Robin Swann at the Ulster Unionist Party Manifesto launch at HMS Caroline Belfast.Picture y Hugh Russell.
Robin Swann and Doug Beattie at the Ulster Unionist Party's manifesto launch for the 2022 assembly election at HMS Caroline in Belfast. Picture: Hugh Russell.

Running Kent-based Tim Collins in North Down already seemed strange before the retired army colonel gave a Colonel Blimp interview to the News Letter. Party leader Doug Beattie then made it worse by over-apologising on Radio Ulster.

Councillor Diana Armstrong is a good choice for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which the UUP won as recently as 2015. But her candidacy is not getting the promotion it deserves.

While lack of resources and experienced staff are problems for the shrinking UUP, the buck stops with Beattie and it is painfully clear his leadership is not working out. He lingers in post largely because nobody else can see how to do a better job. One more bad election must bring the issue to a head.


The Executive has passed a budget from Sinn Féin finance minister Caoimhe Archibald, although the UUP voted against.

First Minister Michelle O'Neill (left), Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly (right) and Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald announced details of Stormont’s budget at Stormont Castle.
First Minister Michelle O'Neill (left), Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly (right) and Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald announced details of Stormont’s budget at Stormont Castle. Picture: David Young/PA Wire (David Young/David Young/PA Wire)

Getting any agreement is an achievement worth acknowledging under present straightened circumstances but it is only a one-year budget and the next assembly election is three years away.

Each new executive is meant to pass a multi-year budget covering its whole term. Incredibly, the last time this happened was in 2011. Since that budget ran out in 2015, various collapses and crises mean there have only been emergency one-year budgets, of which this will be the tenth.

Health managers say lack of multi-year budgets has done more harm to Northern Ireland’s health service than lack of money, as all planning has to be short-term. Every other public service has been in the same boat.


Work to tackle pollution in Lough Neagh could be “paused” due to budget shortfalls, Alliance environment and agriculture minister Andrew Muir has warned the assembly.

This statement was partly a pre-budget negotiation but it also sounded partly like an excuse.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left), Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly visit Lough Neagh
First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left), Agriculture and Environment Minister Andrew Muir and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly during a visit to Lough Neagh (Rebecca Black/PA)

“We need funding for engagement and education on the causes of this, particularly on agricultural run-off,” Muir continued.

How many farmers do not understand the simple rules on spraying slurry, the main cause of the pollution? What is required is more enforcement by the department and its agencies, which is as much a matter of will as of resources.

The merger of agriculture and the environment into one department in 2015 created an obvious conflict of interest. Muir needs to confront the question Alliance most dreads: which side is he on?


Stormont passed a law in 2022 to ban hospital car parking charges. Because there is no funding or planning for this and implementing it would cause chaos, it has been postponed until at least 2026.

Go to the Royal Victoria Hospital any day of the week and there is a queue to get into the car park
Stormont passed a law in 2022 to ban hospital car parking charges, but the move has been postponed until at least 2026

An SDLP motion to bring it forward to next year was defeated in the assembly by Sinn Féin, Alliance and the UUP. This is a rare instance of Sinn Féin standing up to witless populism, so it is a good sign for responsible government. It was doubly impressive as Sinn Féin created the 2022 law, so it was standing up to its own witless populism.

The DUP voted with the SDLP, which is a bad sign for responsible government.

TUV leader Jim Allister joined them, which is a sign of the apocalypse.


The government has declared the Rwanda immigration bill, which has just become law, will apply in full to Northern Ireland. A statement accompanying the bill says it is compatible with the Windsor Framework because it does not affect any rights protected by the Good Friday Agreement or have anything to do with the UK leaving the EU.

Rishi Sunak said his patience had ‘run thin’ as delays to his Rwanda Bill mounted
The British government has declared that the Rwanda immigration bill will apply in full to Northern Ireland (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

This has been directly contradicted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which notes asylum seekers are protected by the Human Rights Act, inferring they are also protected by the Agreement.

Although legal opinion leans against the government, Windsor Framework disputes are ultimately a matter of political negotiation. An EU struggling with its own immigration problems may be reluctant to start an argument.

The Irish government has revealed 80 per cent of asylum seekers are entering the Republic via the land border, while Sinn Féin has announced it “opposes open borders”. Neither sound likely to demand Northern Ireland becomes an asylum seeker sanctuary.


Derry's Waterside Theatre, which is to close after 23 years. Picture: Waterside Theatre and Arts Centre/Facebook
Derry's Waterside Theatre

Derry’s Waterside Theatre is facing closure after the Arts Council stopped its annual £125,000 funding.

Of course, arts funding is under pressure and any cut can appear subjective.

But this one seems especially puzzling when the Arts Council still appears to be funding Belfast’s Mac theatre almost a year after it emerged its funding was under review.

The Mac received £1,246,426 from the Arts Council in 2023, according to accounts filed in March.


Alliance MLA Patrick Brown has resigned ahead of an assembly standards investigation. Filling his seat will require a co-option, leading to the usual complaints about a process many consider undemocratic. But what is the alternative? You cannot have by-elections in Stormont’s five-seat constituencies because the largest party would always win.

Patrick Brown with Alliance party leader Naomi Long at an election count in Belfast in 2022
Patrick Brown pictured with Alliance Party leader Naomi Long at an election count in Belfast in 2022 (Liam McBurney/PA)

One option would be to have some MLAs elected via regional party lists, as in Scotland and Wales. Although this complicated system was not devised to address the co-option problem, it has the side-effect of giving voters advance notice of who will fill any future vacancies. Of course, Stormont parties could do that anyway, without the hassle of changing the system.