UUP's Aiken in plea for inclusive unionism as he lambasts ‘inept’ DUP
The new leader of the Ulster Unionists has launched a stinging attack on the DUP in his inaugural speech.
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Speaking at a party conference in Templepatrick at the weekend, former submarine commander Steve Aiken MLA blasted the DUP's performance over the three years since the Brexit referendum.
"We are now in the teeth of a general election with the Boris Johnson/DUP withdrawal deal being the biggest threat to the Union that we have experienced; for, thanks to Nigel Dodds, Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson and Sammy Wilson, we now have a border drawn down the Irish Sea," he told delegates.
He said the future of the Union was under threat for what he called "Boris Johnson's sell-out deal", and slammed "the DUP's ineptitude in creating a border in the Irish Sea, coupled with a level of venality that would, in any normal political society, see them banished into obscurity."
Mr Aiken told the party faithful that the Prime Minister and his DUP allies made "false promises" over the UK's departure from the EU.
"No unionist voted for England, Scotland and Wales to leave but Northern Ireland to stay in the EU," he added.
The former Royal Navy officer-turned-politician succeeds Robin Swann as leader and will be aiming to win back representation at Westminster for a party which was once the mainstay of unionism, but has been eclipsed at the polls by the DUP.
Mr Aiken outlined his vision of inclusive and progressive unionism. "I have a vision where one day we can have a normal political discourse where political parties will be fighting elections on policies, rather than the rancorous dialogue over seats for one community or the other.
"Where all political parties will engage in the democratic process and take their seats, rather than attempting to turn every single election into a plebiscite for a united Ireland."
He called for "cultural change" in Northern Ireland's political and public administration in the wake of the multi-million pound Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and subsequent public inquiry.
"We need to change Stormont together, we need to change the culture, the Civil Service, the role of ministers, and really making people - and I mean ministers - accountable and responsible for their actions."
He also called for reform of the health service and education system in order to deliver better outcomes for people.
Mr Aiken painted an optimistic picture of a Northern Ireland which could become "a much better place, a brilliant country where we will have the best education, fantastic opportunities for jobs".
"A health and welfare system that is the envy of the rest of the UK, a green and pleasant land that is at the forefront of tackling climate change.
"A place where our elderly and disabled feel valued and respected and a place where our young people will want return to, to stay, to settle down and to, once again, believe in."
But Mr Aiken warned: "If the Conservatives' deal (on Brexit) goes through, Northern Ireland will, well and truly, be a place apart."