Belfast Telegraph

Swann's call for UUP to be 'radical moderates' as he backs voluntary coalition at Stormont

By Suzanne Breen

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann says his party must rebuild and win back unionist "hearts and minds" so it can again challenge for the First Minister's office at Stormont.

Acknowledging it had lost six MLAs and two MPs in this year's elections, he said the UUP must analyse "with total honesty" what went wrong.

Rebuilding the party to a point where it could challenge the DUP wouldn't happen overnight, he admitted.

"It will mean days, weeks, months, years of consistent hard work," he said. "Let's face it, there's only so many Spotlight specials people can take before they look for an alternative."

Addressing the party's annual conference in Armagh on Saturday for the first time since taking over as leader from Mike Nesbitt, Mr Swann said the party had started to "rebuild, re-energise and reconnect" in preparation for the 2019 council elections.

Calling for "a new unionism", he described it as "a unionism that can be confident without being arrogant. A unionism that can be proud without being condescending. A unionism that can be embracing. A unionism that doesn't rely on fear".

"I have said before that we are moderate people but now is the time for us to be radical moderates. Look at what the extremes have done for our country. Crisis and stalemate and talks process after talks process," he added.

It was time "to leave behind parties that are bankrupting Northern Ireland, parties that want it all their own way, parties that don't keep their promises... that put themselves first", he said.

Government shouldn't be about "lining the pockets of those who support you, or lining your own pockets - it should be about a good education system, a funded health service, housing and jobs that meets the needs of everyone", Mr Swann continued.

Turning to the ongoing talks, he said: "Deadlines have come and deadlines have gone, windows of opportunity have been opened and slammed shut, glide paths and landings have been commenced and then aborted.

"As the stalemate at Stormont rolls on, the difficulties across every aspect of our public services continue to deepen." The UUP leader said Northern Ireland needed an Executive in place to deal with the huge pressures on health and education.

Identifying Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams as an obstacle to a deal, he called for an alternative to mandatory coalition at Stormont.

"I am sick of progress in Northern Ireland being held up because one party is being swung by the tail by a TD who has no mandate in Northern Ireland," he said. "It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an Executive of the willing. A voluntary coalition."

Mr Swann hit out at Sinn Fein for demanding rights when it didn't recognise the rights outlined in the Belfast Agreement. "While Michelle (O'Neill) may not be British, I am, you are, and Northern Ireland is," he said.

He claimed an Irish Language Act would further split Northern Ireland. "It is not scaremongering to express concerns that legislation would lead to further division in society. We would no longer be reliant on flags or painted kerbstones - we would know whose territory we were in by the road signs."

Although he didn't directly mention the DUP, Mr Swann said he wished to address the relationship between "political unionism" and paramilitaries.

He stressed that the UUP wouldn't "give political cover" to those who were "community workers by day and extortionists or political bullies by night". It wouldn't "trade principles for possible cheap electoral gain by buying votes whilst turning a blind eye (to) unacceptable practices" plaguing communities.

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