Belfast Telegraph

Nesbitt urged to throw hat in ring as Swann quits as UUP leader

Mike Nesbitt MLA
Mike Nesbitt MLA
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Supporters of former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt are urging him to run for the party leadership after Robin Swann's resignation.

MLAs Doug Beattie and Steve Aiken are likely to stand, but Mr Nesbitt has also been encouraged to throw his hat into the ring.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that he will consider his position over the coming days.

Mr Swann announced yesterday that he was standing down in February after more than two years at the helm.

The North Antrim MLA, who has two children, said he had reflected on the impact the job was having on "his role as a husband and father".

Party sources said he made the decision in the wake of Wrightbus going into administration with the loss of 1,200 jobs last week.

"It has ripped the heart out of his constituency," the source said.

"Robin felt the all-consuming duties of being party leader meant he didn't have enough time to spend on this and other local issues so he made the decision to stand down as leader."

Mr Nesbitt led the UUP for five years but resigned after the party lost seats in the 2017 Assembly election. During that campaign, he had controversially pledged to give his second preference to the SDLP.

Mr Beattie has long been seen as his party's next leader. He has been an Upper Bann MLA for three years. A close friend of Mr Nesbitt, he believed he was too inexperienced to contest the leadership last time round but his profile has grown considerably since.

Mr Beattie said he would consider running, adding: "I'll take soundings within the party and see what support there is.

"I have very liberal values which some people like and others don't like. I have to assess what support I have. You can only lead people if they want to be led."

Adding that Mr Swann had his full backing, he said: "We have Brexit and a likely Westminster election to get through before Robin stands down.

"As far as I'm concerned, Robin is party leader. He has authority over the coming five months, and he has my respect and support 100%."

Steve Aiken, who has been South Antrim MLA for three years, is also a front-runner for the job.

He said: "Unionism, pro-Union and those who want a sensible and sustainable Northern Ireland - one that actually works for us all - need the UUP.

"That's really something worth fighting for and I'm proud to be in the party that can deliver that.

"Whoever is leader, I will strive to make that happen."

In a statement announcing his resignation, Mr Swann said he had been reflecting on his position for several months.

The UUP lost the European parliamentary seat it had held for 40 years with Danny Kennedy trailing back in sixth in May's election.

The party lost 13 seats in the council elections and was reduced from seven to two councillors in Belfast.

Mr Swann said the job was "taking up the lion's share of my time" and it was "unfair to my young family to allow this to continue".

He said: "The UUP faces its challenges, but I am determined in my remaining time as leader to bring forward the changes required to make it a competitive electoral force once again.

"I believe that it is more important than ever for the Ulster Unionist Party to fight back to help secure and strengthen support for the Union."

He said it had been "an honour and privilege" to lead the party. There was a "huge amount of work" to be done in his constituency which had been "devastated by recent job losses", he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister said: "Robin has been a very affable opponent and colleague within unionism. I respect and understand his decision to stand down. I wish him well - and hopefully a less pressured future."

DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted: "I'd like to wish Robin Swann well. Our families sacrifice a huge amount but they must always come first.

"I've worked well with Robin, and hope his successor can be part of a fully functioning Assembly alongside all parties."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was sorry Mr Swann was stepping down, but was pleased he wasn't leaving politics.

Two contenders to be the next UUP leader

Former soldier Doug Beattie (52) has been one of the UUP's high profile and outspoken members since his election to the Assembly in 2016.

The MLA for Upper Bann has previously voiced his admiration for outgoing leader Robin Swann, despite disagreeing with him on issues like same-sex marriage, and called Mike Nesbitt "a visionary" who stepped down as party leader too soon.

Married with two grown-up children, he has two grandsons and lives in Portadown.

Joining the Royal Irish Rangers at 16, he rose to the rank of captain and received a military cross for his time in Afghanistan.

Having published three books, he has spoken candidly about his experiences of war.

As the UUP's justice spokesperson, he has said that soldiers who served during the Troubles should face punishment if they broke the law. He added, however, that mistakes made by soldiers under pressure should also be taken into account.

Steve Aiken (55) was elected as the UUP MLA for South Antrim in 2016 following his previous career as a submarine commander.

Commenting on Mr Swann's resignation, he said: "It has been a privilege to have Robin lead us and no one can doubt his commitment to his family and the party."

He lives in Doagh and is married with four daughters (including two from a previous marriage). In 2014, he was treated for bowel cancer and has since called for the creation of a cancer strategy in Northern Ireland.

He has also been awarded an OBE for operations in the Middle East, where he worked as a lead planner for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UUP's economy spokesperson, he served as the founding CEO of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and said Mike Nesbitt convinced him to enter politics, with a common belief that the economy is more important for Northern Ireland than sectarianism.

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