Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Reviving fortunes a giant task for UUP as Robin Swann stands down

UUP leader Robin Swann
UUP leader Robin Swann

Editor's Viewpoint

Robin Swann's decision to step down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, effective from the party's AGM next year, is hardly a shock and he genuinely wants to do what every retiring politician says - spend more time with his young family.

Reviving a party which was the unchallenged voice of unionism in Northern Ireland for 50 years until the prorogation of Stormont, and which ever since has fragmented every time it faced a crisis, is a long term project and one which Mr Swann evidently feels he can no longer devote the time required to.

He is a decent man who embodied many of the qualities of the UUP, which is a very broad church, but staving off the constant attacks from the DUP proved beyond him as it did so many predecessors. It is understandable that he has determined there are more rewarding priorities in his life.

In some ways the UUP is like the SDLP which has suffered many reverses at the hands of Sinn Fein but it does have a large party membership which is looking for a leader to re-energise it.

The UUP's problem is that it failed to differentiate itself from the DUP. Obviously its pro-Union credentials are similar but mimicking the DUP's pro-Brexit stance gives it little room for manoeuvre if the exit from Europe turns out badly. It has broadly similar attitudes on social issues, giving it an image of DUP-lite, rather than a vibrant identity of its own.

Unionism is facing many challenges at the present, not least the prospect of becoming the minority community in the near future, which would appear to be the opportunity for moderate unionism to seek a wider audience among the middle ground of local politics. Instead, the UUP finds itself under challenge there from Alliance.

Whoever becomes the next UUP leader will go into the job with his or her eyes wide open and will be well aware of the scale of the task in hand. Politics in Northern Ireland has morphed into two big silos with toxic Orange and Green relationships. Breaking that mould at a time when unionists feel threatened and republicans feel Irish unity has never been closer is a huge, if not impossible, task.

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But recent election results - albeit in the unusual circumstances of Brexit - show there is a middle ground to be harvested and the UUP has a significant base on which to build, but it must start showing success very soon if reports of its ill health does not become an obituary.

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