Good Friday Agreement has been undermined and isn't working, says Swann
- Hopes raised by deal have been allowed to wither, claims UUP leader
- Politics have regressed badly and we're now in sphere of 'them and us'
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann says the high hopes of the Good Friday Agreement have not been fulfilled.
Tuesday will mark two decades since the historic deal was signed - pushed through amid extraordinary pressure from around the world - by David Trimble and John Hume.
And as Mr Swann, who voted against the deal in 1998, prepares to give his second leader's speech at the UUP's spring conference tomorrow, he said he was struggling to be upbeat about an Agreement that "isn't working".
He said it has been "undermined" over the years, especially at St Andrews.
"Of course we'll talk about the Belfast Agreement this weekend," said Mr Swann.
"It's a significant milestone, 20 years on. But to be honest, it's hard to celebrate something that isn't currently working, something that started out with such hope for a lot of people but that has been allowed to wither.
"The reality is we probably aren't where we should have been. We aren't where people envisaged we'd be back in 1998.
"A lot of people then would have hoped that by this stage politics would have normalised, but if anything we've regressed in the last 14 months and we're more polarised than we have been for 10 or 12 years.
"Society itself isn't regressing, I don't think, but politically we're pulling away into a sphere of 'them and us'."
Mr Swann (46) was new to the party around the time the Agreement was signed, and voted against it over the issue of prisoner releases.
"That was my core concern," he said.
"But after the referendum and the vote went through, I supported David Trimble and what he was trying to do. I saw the positives in what was happening, the hope that was there to improve people's lives."
The political impasse is a frustration for many, especially in the context of Good Friday, and it's something Mr Swann will be addressing in his speech to party delegates at tomorrow's conference in Newcastle.
"It's the day to day issues that are difficult," he said. "You'd think by now we should be doing bread and butter work, talking about education, the NHS - ordinary, mature politics.
"But we can't, we don't have a functioning system, a functioning society. As politicians, we've been playing everything out in the media for more than a year because even after all these months we still have no Assembly."
Last month prominent Ulster Unionist Colin McCusker revealed he was standing down as a party representative after becoming disillusioned with politics.
He resigned his post as general secretary in December, and confirmed he would not seek re-election as a councillor for Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon.
Mr McCusker, the son of late MP Harold McCusker, said it was the 2017 elections - which saw the party lose six seats at Stormont and two at Westminster -that spelled the end.
"Northern Ireland politics has gone backwards instead of forwards," Mr McCusker said at the time. "The party had done quite well in 2016, and then in 2017 were obliterated and that was very demoralising."
Mr Swann agreed there was frustration, adding: "He got involved in active politics when there was active politics in Northern Ireland.
"He became disillusioned, but a lot of the general public are disillusioned with politics too because we should be up there, day to day, making decisions on education and health, on all the issues that matter to people."
While Mr Swann declined to be drawn on whether the party would join an opposition coalition in the future - "that's a hypothetical question" that would have to follow "real conversations about progress for government, budget discussions and talks round tables" - he was quick to rule out a pan-unionist party under his watch.
"I have no intention of going down that path," he said. "It doesn't work. Unionism is not a single, homogeneous group and there has to be an alternative voice. It's not in my DNA."
And neither, said Mr Swann, would he consider leaving Northern Ireland in another "hypothetical" scenario, this time a united Ireland - unlike DUP leader Arlene Foster, who told comedian Patrick Kielty in a BBC documentary aired on Wednesday night that she would "probably have to move".
"Would I consider leaving the country? No," said Mr Swann. "I'm the leader of the Ulster Unionists, I'd never run away from a fight. In any case, there would be a lot of people here who wouldn't be able to run away from a united Ireland and they'd need to be represented.
"But the job for now is to persuade people of the benefits of staying in the UK. That's what's important - not that I think there's any realistic prospect of it happening. Northern Ireland is my home."