DUP’s politics and scandals now undermine the Union, Robin Swann tells the Ulster Unionist Party conference

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The DUP’s “grubby politics” and frequent scandals are undermining the Union and damaging the reputation of unionists across the UK, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann has said.

In a forceful address to his party’s annual conference in Armagh, Mr Swann implicitly dismissed any suggestions of unionist unity by launching into a blistering critique of the UUP’s larger unionist rival.

Addressing his second UUP conference as party leader on Saturday October 20, Robin Swann was well received by those in Armagh's City Hotel on Saturday. Photo by Kelvin Boyes /Press Eye

Addressing his second UUP conference as party leader on Saturday October 20, Robin Swann was well received by those in Armagh's City Hotel on Saturday. Photo by Kelvin Boyes /Press Eye

The North Antrim MLA, who was addressing his second conference as leader, savaged the DUP for actions which have been exposed over recent months, saying that “unionism has been dragged into the gutter by the DUP...and I feel angry”.

He denounced both Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds by name — as well as sharply criticising Sinn Féin, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

As chairman of Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee, Mr Swann led the investigation into the RHI scandal which was ultimately superseded by Sir Patrick Coghlin’s public inquiry.

The UUP leader’s speech on Saturday was laced with acerbic references to the inquiry’s revelations about how the DUP and Sinn Féin operated during a decade of devolution.

Mr Swann also rounded on Sinn Féin, saying that it seems “utterly incapable of showing any sensitivity towards the victims of IRA violence – you cannot preach reconciliation while in the next breath lauding sectarian killers and shouting ‘up the rebels’.”

After repeating a call which he made a year ago for a unionism which is “confident without being arrogant” and “proud without being condescending”, Mr Swann said: “Does any one of us look at the DUP and see this?

“What then, does the rest of the UK see when they look to those representing Northern Ireland unionism on the national stage?

“For me, one of the most shocking and sickening revelations of the RHI Inquiry was the complete disregard for British taxpayers’ money.

“How could any unionist stand over this?

“And that’s the problem, the irony is that when the DUP have the perfect opportunity to be at the fore of pan-UK unionism, their Ulster nationalism shines through. It’s grotesque.”

He added: “It’s grim that the DUP have created a situation where Sinn Féin of all people are able to call for “integrity in government” and gifted them the opportunity to pull down the institutions.”

Later, Mr Swann criticised what he portrayed as insular behaviour by the DUP which had not won unionism friends. He said: “Nigel Dodds says there’s a battle for the Union. I’m inclined to think it’s a battle to save the Union from the DUP” and went on to criticise “being nasty or belittling your neighbours”, an apparent reference to the DUP.

Referring to the DUP & SF ‘deal’ (ultimately blocked by the DUP) to get Stormont back, Robin Swann highlights that despite the revelations of the RHI Inquiry both parties were fundamentally prepared to get Stormont back as it was. That won’t work, he said, adding that “if openness & transparency are the currency of democracy, the last executive was bankrupt”.

He called for reforms to how Stormont operates, including moves to rein in Spads and putting the running of the Executive “on a more formal, even legislative footing” with smaller parties guaranteed access to papers and answers to questions.

In a blunt message to the DUP and Sinn Féin which encapsulated much of his message, Mr Swann said: “If you call yourself a democrat, you need to act like one.”