Belfast Telegraph

No fireworks from UUP leader Swann whose best asset is his sheer ordinariness

By Suzanne Breen

Robin Swann's first conference as Ulster Unionist leader was never going to be a headline grabber. That's not the nature of the man.

He lacks Mike Nesbitt's smooth oratorical skills and his predecessor's presidential style of leadership has been replaced by a much more low-key approach.

Anyone looking for a pre-Halloween political fireworks display would have been disappointed.

Last year's gathering was all 'Vote Mike, Get Colum' with the SDLP leader as the invited guest speaker. That flirtation with venturing into new territory to offer an alternative to DUP-Sinn Fein rule has been well and truly put to bed as the party retreats back into old familiar ground.

Indeed, so vehement and sustained were the attacks on an Irish Language Act that it sounded like a DUP conference of yesteryear.

But those speeches were enthusiastically received and Acht na Gaeilge seems to be becoming as big a touchstone issue for the unionist base as it already is for the nationalist community.

Despite the recent bruising election results, the UUP conference was well attended and the party's message to its big unionist rival was that it won't be packing its bags and heading home.

Indeed, Mr Swann walked to the podium to Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down'. His speech began in good humour with him joking that his small stature meant he needed to stand on a box to reach the microphone. He recounted his childhood living in a Housing Executive house in Kells, a boy whose mother was a hospital cleaner and his father a plumber who kept pigeons.

Swann isn't a natural politician but his sheer ordinariness is his greatest strength. While he didn't inspire delegates, they trust him and not one said a bad word about their new leader, even privately.

His speech though failed to pack a punch. He called for a "new unionism" that was confident and all-embracing and said it was "time for us to be radical moderates".

Talk of a "new unionism" has been around since David Trimble's era 20 years ago, and the UUP leader failed to articulate what a "radical moderate" even is.

There was nothing in his speech to make the DUP fear that its rival will become competitive any time soon. But with the loss of two MPs and six MLAs so recently, all the UUP can realistically hope to do for now is hang in there and try to rebuild from the bottom up.

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