Belfast Telegraph

UUP chief Swann gives bleak assessment in wake of Stormont impasse

By Michael McHugh

There is little to celebrate 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann has said.

Mr Swann made the bleak assessment at his party's spring conference at the weekend.

The landmark anniversary of the 1998 peace deal comes as Stormont remains in cold storage, more than a year after it collapsed amid a row over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Since then attempts to restore the Executive have been deadlocked by issues around the Irish language and the toxic legacy of our past.

Mr Swann championed renewed reconciliation, tolerance, partnership, respect and mutual trust ahead of tomorrow's anniversary of the Agreement.

He said: "Sadly, the Belfast Agreement was not allowed to evolve and grow with society in the way it was envisaged because there were those who had much to fear from the normalisation of politics here.

"Twenty years on there is little to celebrate when the DUP and Sinn Fein haven't been able to form a Government, with one of them putting down a seemingly immovable red line of an Irish Language Act."

The Executive collapsed last year when former Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in a dispute over the DUP's handling of the RHI scheme. Endless rounds of negotiations led by the British and Irish Governments have failed to find a breakthrough.

Mr Swann told his party's spring conference in Newcastle that the absence of Government was hurting public services and unelected civil servants were making important decisions.

He urged an end to the "inhumane" treatment that survivors and victims of historical institutional abuse have suffered awaiting compensation payments recommended shortly before power-sharing collapsed.

Mr Swann also called for radical change to Northern Ireland's education system, outlining his vision of a single education system, where children of all faiths and none are educated together, with one single sectoral body instead of the current five, "and in which school teachers are no longer openly discriminated against on grounds of religion in their recruitment".

The MLA restated his conviction that devolved government represented the best way forward for the future, and criticised the democratic deficit that has seen decisions deferred - or in the absence of accountable representative government left to unelected civil servants to implement.

"We are a devolutionist party; we believe that the best delivery for the people of Northern Ireland is by the direction of locally elected Northern Ireland politicians.

"When the Assembly started to unravel, our party chairman, Lord Empey, warned others of how easy it was to walk down the steps, but not to underestimate how difficult it would be to get back up them.

"The current political impasse serves no one."

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