Taking the helm

New Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann talks to agendaNi about his ‘baptism of fire’ and future ambitions for the party.

Even before the final votes had been tallied during the Assembly Election of March 2017, Mike Nesbitt Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader fell on his sword, foreseeing the outcome that was to be the party’s worst ever electoral performance.

His successor, elected unchallenged by the membership, faced an uphill battle to turn around the fortunes of a party which had returned just 10 MLAs. Robin Swann, first elected to the North Antrim constituency in 2011, outlined a programme for change and ambitions to strengthen the party’s appeal to the wider unionist electorate.

However, he like many others, couldn’t have foreseen that just 10 days into his reign, British Prime Minister Theresa May would call for a snap General Election in the face of Brexit. In what was viewed by many as a ‘protest’ vote by nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland, in the context of Assembly stand off between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the smaller parties suffered. The SDLP lost all three of their Westminster seats, while the UUP also lost the two which they held.

The Assembly absence in Northern Ireland, coupled with no representation at Westminster, led critics to question the future direction of these two parties. Swann however, is in no doubt that the UUP remains viable. “There is a clear need for the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland and anyone who perceives unionism to be one homogenous bloc is sadly mistaken,” he says.

“The UUP gives representation to those unionists that don’t see themselves represented by the DUP or reflected in their stances and policies.”

Speaking on whether the Westminster outcome was to be expected, considering that the previous two Assembly elections had seen a swell in support for the two major parties, Swann states: “I was still hopeful we were at least going to return our two MPs based on the work they had done on the ground and the work the party had done leading into the campaign. I believe that had they have served their full term as MPs then they would have been returned. However, the timing was out of our control.”

Theresa May’s attempts to consolidate the Conservative majority backfired. Her slim minority would require a coalition if it was to survive, or at least the confidence and supply arrangement that the DUP finally negotiated. At a time when Northern Ireland unionists wield great influence in Westminster, the UUP is without representation.

“Am I regretful that we are not in Westminster? Of course I am. In regards to the deal, it would be churlish not to welcome it but I’m concerned that we are not seeing any of that money being spent yet. Although my original understanding that the money could only be spent by a working Executive was rebutted, we are still not seeing it being spent. I think it is even more crucial now that that we get Stormont back up and running.”

Former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt(left) was replaced by Robin Swan (right)

 

“Under my leadership the UUP will stand on its own two feet to fight elections.”

Swann states that after his “baptism of fire” he is now focussed on implementing those changes he mapped out from the outset. Quizzed on what these changes will look like, he responds: “They are mostly around the internal workings of the party. It’s about top to bottom communication and how we do policy. We want to ensure that we correctly communicate policy internally to ensure that we are getting the internal support before we take it to the electorate.”

Stormont

While the collapse of the Stormont institutions has been blamed on a variety of reasons, Swann believes that resumption is being blocked by “Sinn Féin red lines”. One of those red lines Sinn Féin has laid down is the implementation of an Irish Language Act. Last month, Swann met with Irish language activists but says that the “frank, respectful” meetings did not change his view that Northern Ireland does not require a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

“I think the use of the Irish Language Act as a red line for the restoration of the institutions is wrong.” While some parties have chosen to focus on the cost of implementing an Act as the main reason for their objection, Swann argues that it is the content that cannot be accepted by the UUP.

“The inclusion of an Irish Language Commissioner who has the same authority and power as a high court judge is too much for us. Similarly, the recruitment process of 10 per cent of civil servants required to be fluent Irish speakers is a step too far for us. It’s not replicated in equivalence anywhere else.

“As a party and as a person I have no problem with the Irish language. In fact, it was Michael McGimpsey, as our first Culture Minister in 1998, that put in the protections and promotions that we are now seeing as partly responsible for the growth of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

“To establish or promote an Irish Language Act in the absence of Stormont is an anathema. This is a democratic society, so how could we create an Irish Language Act without it being debated or going through committee? Just to be presented with a final Act, which has been agreed somewhere outside of the democratic process, just doesn’t work.”

MEP Jim Nicholson (left) has been praised for the role he is performing in Brussels as the Brexit negotiations continue by the party leader Robin Swann (right).

RHI

Critics have suggested that the Stormont impasse has moved far beyond the central reason for original Executive tensions, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Having chaired the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which led the original investigations into the flawed scheme, Swann rejects that the issue has been pushed from public consciousness.

“I think Sir Patrick Colgan’s (Chair of the established public inquiry) inquiry will refocus the determination to get some of the answers the PAC was searching for.”

Opposition

The UUP’s decision to stay outside of the Executive and form an official opposition following the May 2016 election was heralded as a “big, bold step forward to normal democracy” by previous leader Mike Nesbitt. Asked whether the party would seek to follow this route under the resumption of an Assembly, Swann says: “We as a party haven’t taken a firm decision on whether we would go in or out of an Executive because that decision will be based on the decisions taken during the talks. We want to see reform, going into opposition at the time was the right thing to do and was a step towards normalisation of politics here in Northern Ireland. I think it was something we needed because the last 10 years hasn’t been good politics in Northern Ireland.”
The move to opposition had also heralded a formalising of cooperation between the UUP and the SDLP. However, an announcement by Nesbitt stating that he would be giving the SDLP his second preference vote over other unionist parties, was viewed by some as a mistake and highlighted when critiquing the party’s electoral demise.

While Swann says the party will continue to work with others, he has ruled out a formal relationship: “Under my leadership the UUP will stand on its own two feet to fight elections. Northern Ireland succeeds when unionists and nationalists work together but I don’t think that has to be in any formal relationship. However, working with others is always something we have always been able to do, and something we do well.”

Brexit

Having voted to leave during the Brexit referendum, Swann believes that it is time for everyone to accept the democratic result and set about getting the best result for Northern Ireland in the UK.

“Trying to fight the referendum over and over again isn’t healthy or productive. There are those who are trying to use it as a Trojan horse for a united Ireland and I think that is damaging to Northern Ireland in our relationship with both the UK and the European Union.”

Swann does not perceive the referendum outcome to be a threat to the union: “I see a strengthening of the union in the form of the relationship between England, Scotland and Wales and how they are working as a united body trying to get the best deal of Brexit. Our problem is we are voiceless at this moment in time. The east-west ministerial council [British-Irish Council] and the North-South Ministerial Council should be working to make sure we are getting the very best deal that the UK Government is negotiating at this moment in time.”

Although Northern Ireland remains voiceless at the UK’s negotiating table, Swann is quick to point out that they have in their ranks Europe’s longest serving MEP, Jim Nicholson, who has been working hard to exert influence in Europe.

“When you get across to Europe you see the regard that he is held in and the authority that he has. He has called (Michel) Barnier to task twice now and continues to do so through committees and the workings of Brussels. While Northern Ireland might not have a seat at the UK negotiating table, Jim’s being effective in Brussels to make sure our case is being argued from that side.”

“There was a point in time when we looked as if we were moving towards a normalisation of politics but the last two elections have started to retrench Northern Ireland society.”

Swann is critical of the letter sent by the Northern Ireland Executive to Theresa May prior to its collapse, describing it as “sparse”. He also believes that Northern Ireland’s civil service lacked the levels or preparation needed to accurately reflect Northern Ireland’s concerns.

Waiting to see the contents of the British Government’s proposals for the Irish border, he adds: “One thing that will not be acceptable to us is a border up the middle of the Irish Sea. I don’t think any unionist would be happy having to show a passport travelling from Larne to Cairnryan.”

Asked whether this solution would be less acceptable than a physical border in Ireland, he says: “It depends on how we talk about a physical border and I think that’s where the Republic of Ireland have a responsibility rather than their current stance. If the Taoiseach has any respect for the Northern Ireland people and the Good Friday Agreement, in the right to self-determination, he should be a bit more understanding.
“We already have a Common Travel Area (CTA) which has been in existence since 1921, and works. The Republic of Ireland is able to remain outside Schengen because of the CTA. If they wanted to be sensible or realistic about how the border appears on this island, then they have a large part to play. I think they are currently being fast and loose about it.

“What a customs border looks like and what the practicalities are, I don’t know yet. Barnier asked for creative solutions. I believe those creative solutions already exist but I don’t think it’s a matter of lifting one package off the shelf (i.e. the Norwegian or Turkish model). We have to look at solutions for our unique situation.”
Swann also contends that special status is something the Republic of Ireland should be seeking, because of their levels of trade with the UK, rather than Northern Ireland.

Concluding by outlining the challenges faced by the party going forward, Swann says: “Reforming our message and getting it out there to show that what the UUP has to offer is as equal if not better than some of the other political parties in Northern Ireland. We need to remove a fear factor in Northern Ireland politics.

“There was a point in time when we looked as if we were moving towards a normalisation of politics but the last two elections have started to retrench Northern Ireland society. That’s something that worries and concerns me and it’s not the Northern Ireland I want to see my children grow up in.”

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