Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: UUP's sincere, committed leader Swann facing huge task

By Jon Tonge

UUP leader Robin Swann faced a trio of difficult tasks at his party conference on Saturday: attacking the DUP in a way that resonated with ordinary unionists; articulating the means of revival for his own party; and stopping television viewers from flicking to Chelsea versus Manchester United.

Criticising the DUP was the relatively easy part. The conference faithful had already been entertained by some knockabout from Lord Empey.

The former leader derided how the DUP had turned moderate nationalists into republicans and mislaid unionism's majority.

Empey scorned Nigel Dodds's new "Che Guevara guerrilla war" role at Westminster. Empey wondered whether the new guerrillas should be called the "Red Berets" or "Clontibret Fusiliers" in tribute to the antics of two previous DUP leaders. Swann was much more serious in his criticisms, claiming there was a "battle to save the Union from the DUP". Its antics, he claimed, had alienated a very wide range of people - unionists, nationalists and British taxpayers.

In a neat dig at Arlene Foster, he insisted the DUP was both "accountable and responsible" for its actions. Yet, on Brexit, there were no differences of substance between the UUP and DUP.

Swann slammed the backstop idea for turning Northern Ireland into an "EU protectorate" in language that will surely be repeated by Foster, Dodds et al at their own conference next month.

And the UUP leader's demand that the Taoiseach stop "poking unionists in the eye" and to "step away from the microphone" drew some of the loudest applause.

So, the tough part for the UUP leader was articulating a clear vision that would make DUP or non-voting unionists switch to the UUP.

This is even more difficult given there is no chance to operationalise that vision anyway. Devolution appears over for now, so any DUP misdemeanours at Stormont cannot be directly punished by voters.

The UUP cannot really display its own claims to governing competence. Swann called for the appointment of ministers to run Northern Ireland, seemingly recognition that he has called time on the Bradley-esque fiction that devolution is restorable.

Insofar as we got a clear sketch of the UUP's unionism, Swann's denunciation of "sectarianism, racism and homophobia" was as good at it got.

His insistence that anyone who supported such things was in the wrong party was well-received. But in the five Assembly votes on same-sex marriage, 94% of UUP MLAs voted against the legalisation.

They would certainly distinguish between their defence of traditional marriage and homophobia (as do DUP MLAs), critics might not.

Swann's vision of unionism is of the contractual, non-religious, common bonds with England, Scotland and Wales variety.

He derided the pledge of Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald to "allow" unionists to remain British, arguing that what is fixed and innate does not need permission. So not much rapprochement there.

The UUP leader therefore talked up next May's elections as a "battle about what type of unionism you want".

Curiously, Swann talked up UUP chances on the basis of a 7% increase in his party's vote in the Carrick Castle by-election.

He presumably hoped that no one had noticed that the DUP captured the seat with a near 12% increase in vote share?

Overall, Swann's speech reflected the man: sincere and committed.

He faces an enormous task rebuilding the electoral fortunes of his party, which declined under its four previous leaders.

This competently delivered speech was perhaps a start.

And he finished in time for the second half of Chelsea vs Man United.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? by Tom Hennessey, Maire Braniff, Jim McAuley, Jon Tonge and Sophie Whiting (Oxford University Press) appears this December.

Belfast Telegraph

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