Belfast Telegraph

Robin Swann: Why 95,000 voters give me hope

As the European election approaches, Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann says the local government results were not as bad as some commentators suggested and outlines why his party is standing on a Brexit ticket

A lorry passes poster for campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit in Co Armagh
A lorry passes poster for campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit in Co Armagh
Robin Swann

By Robin Swann

Less than two weeks ago Northern Ireland's voters went to the polls in a local government election to our 11 councils. Given some of the commentary surrounding those results, it will no doubt come as a surprise to many people that the Ulster Unionist Party received over 95,000 first preference votes, elected 75 councillors, is the third largest party of local government and is represented in every council chamber.

There was barely disguised glee from some commentators and analysts - even before the votes were counted - at the thought that the Ulster Unionist Party had had a bad day, and others had prospered.

Once the counting was complete we were 6,000 votes down on the last council elections, but we still received more votes than we did in the European election of 2014, the Assembly election of 2016 and Westminster election of 2017.

I would like to thank the 95,000 people who came out to give us their support and I can assure each and every one of them that this party appreciates their vote and will continue to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

There is no disguising the fact that the Ulster Unionist Party did sustain some losses, and we also made some gains. Belfast was the source of some very disappointing results, but we also made gains, particularly in neighbouring Lisburn & Castlereagh, and in a number of areas across the province we saw the election of new councillors who will provide the talent and ideas to help the party renew itself and move forward.

Ulster Unionists performed well in a number of areas across Northern Ireland but we also lost some valued colleagues who had served their communities well.

We need to take time to analyse the results and assess what we need to do to win voters back to the party and attract new voters.

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One thing I am very sure of: the Ulster Unionist Party is a fairly robust entity. It has endured much in 114 years of existence and has consistently defied both the odds and the pundits.

The fact that 95,000 people are still prepared to come out to a polling station or fill in a postal vote gives me genuine hope and confidence in the future of this party.

The brand of unionism this party represents is one which is about building confidence and prioritising hope and not fear.

It is a unionism that will deliver for the people, not the politicians, and which is both accountable and responsible.

I am in no doubt that the Union is safest when this place works. When people are seeing delivery. When things are good there is no need for anyone to question the constitutional status quo. The Ulster Unionist Party is the party to deliver on a secure Union, and to do that we need both champions and converts.

Unionism should be the comfortable home of choice for people irrespective of their class, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.

It is perfectly possible to be strong in your unionism without being belligerent and disrespectful, and that is the brand of unionism which I am trying to promote.

We are now just over one week away from an election nobody wanted. Indeed, it is an election which should never have been needed.

No matter how you voted in the referendum of June 2016, once the United Kingdom made the decision to leave the EU, as a unionist and as a democrat, I believe we were duty bound to honour that result.

Regardless of the fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, we were participating in a UK-wide referendum, and the result was always going to be one in which the combined vote of the whole United Kingdom would be decisive. The idea that Northern Ireland should be treated as a separate legal, political or economic entity may appeal to some people, but it holds no appeal for unionists.

We can no more be separated out from the rest of the United Kingdom and be subjected to EU laws than London can.

As important as the European single market is, the most important single market for Northern Ireland is the internal market of the United Kingdom and we limit or restrict our access to that at our peril.

We need to end the uncertainty and deliver a sensible Brexit which doesn't undermine the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK and creates the opportunity for a positive trading relationship with our European neighbours.

As was proved only last week, the signing of a deal between the UK and RoI Governments to preserve the Common Travel Area demonstrates that where there is political will and common sense, there is a way to reach agreement.

Others scaremongered that the Common Travel Area would be done away with because of Brexit. Last week's deal signed between two sovereign governments proved that scare story to be totally untrue.

As we move forward into a future that looks to be more uncertain than it has for some time, with the Brexit process still incomplete and talk of border polls and all the political uncertainty that would entail, I believe it is more important than ever that the Ulster Unionist Party should be playing its part in helping shape the political landscape.

Ulster Unionism has always sought to articulate a brand of unionism that is moderate, reasonable and deliverable. We want to make Northern Ireland work within the United Kingdom and to be good neighbours both within Northern Ireland and to the Republic of Ireland.

Having been about since 1905, we have weathered a few storms and come through them.

We are certainly not about to abandon the field now. Ninety-five thousand voters placed their trust in us a fortnight ago and we are not about to let them down. Not now, not ever.

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