Robin Swann: 'Read my lips ... there will be no merger of the UUP and DUP on my watch'
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann welcomes a new book about the party which shows his view is shared by the vast majority of the membership
Firstly, I want to thank Jon Tonge, Tom Hennessey, Maire Braniff, Jim McAuley and Sophie Whiting for the time and effort they put into pulling together The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? I also owe thanks to my predecessor, Mike Nesbitt, and the many party members and staff who gave up their time through participation in facilitating surveys and interviews.
Never before has such an in-depth examination of the Ulster Unionist Party been carried out. It is quite surprising, for an organisation that has been around for so long, that there has been so little in terms of up-to-date research.
For a Northern Ireland party, we have a very large membership base. People have made assumptions about our members, but this is the first time that anyone has taken the time to research exactly what they think.
Sometimes, leadership is about representing your members' views, but it is also about leading and reaching out beyond your own comfort zone. That's why it is useful to know what they think. And to that end, the research has proven exceptionally useful.
The risk, if there was one, in letting academics have access to, and being able to scrutinise, the inner workings of the party was that they would draw conclusions which would make for uncomfortable reading. Another way of looking at it was that the 'uncomfortable reading' could actually provide very clear challenges.
And that's the way I'm looking at it. We have made use of some of the findings, and we will be actively using some of the results in the future.
Nobody can dispute that some of the personal views expressed in the book are very frank - brutally so, at times. They are an honest reflection on where we were, but we are now looking to the future.
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The book gives an insight into the thinking of members of the party at all levels through some of the most turbulent periods in Northern Ireland's history, stretching from the Troubles, through the 1990s and the period of the Belfast Agreement, right up to the modern day.
The views expressed have never been heard before and also open a window on what drives people to get involved in politics, and the Ulster Unionist Party in particular.
I was struck by a comment from a guest at a party conference dinner, pointing out the striking number of young people in attendance. It is notable that the research confirms we have had quite a spike in new members in recent years, and I will continue to work with others to ensure that continues.
The challenge for me and others is to put the energy and enthusiasm of youth to good use to bring better politics to Northern Ireland.
The research confirms that among the party membership, there is no appetite for a merger with the DUP. It is a topic that is often brought up just in advance of an election, so we can expect to see that happening again very soon.
So, before anybody asks, let me be clear: my view about that is unbending. A merger with the DUP will not happen on my watch, and it is reassuring that is the view of the vast majority of Ulster Unionist members.
A merger with the DUP is not in the interests of unionism, because unionism is a movement. It is not owned by one party, or another. A single political party cannot represent all shades of unionist opinion - and I say this as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which, in the past, has been described as the "broad church" of unionism.
I am also aware that there are many DUP voters who have never - and will never - transfer their single transferable vote to the Ulster Unionist Party. That's a reality which cannot be ignored.
Unionism must broaden its appeal, and that's what I intend to do. The Ulster Unionist Party will always be strong in its unionism, but that doesn't mean we can't show respect to others who hold a different view.
The Ulster Unionist Party has been described in the past as "big house" unionists, yet here I am, the son of plumber and a hospital cleaner, raised in a Housing Executive house in Kells, leading it.
Based on the results of the research, we have work to do, but I'm up for it and the party is up for it. I want the Ulster Unionist Party to reflect the diversity of our country, so there's plenty of work to be done in demonstrating that.
I note the authors chose the title of 'Country Before Party?' with a question mark. Let me assure you that there is no question about my commitment, or that of my party, to working in the best interests of Northern Ireland.
For me, it will always be country first - without question. For too many years now, politics has been dominated by those where the party comes first.
If society is to progress and if Northern Ireland is to look forward to a successful, confident second century with the country at peace with itself, then those political parties driven by self-interest will have to be replaced by those who are willing to serve.
- The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? by Thomas Hennessey, Maire Braniff, James W McAuley, Jonathan Tonge and Sophie A Whiting is published by Oxford University Press