The unionist party which negotiated the Belfast Agreement has called for one of its key elements to be altered in light of the continued failure to resurrect devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Addressing the Ulster Unionist Party conference for the first time as leader, Robin Swann called on the government to allow for a voluntary coalition, effectively removing the veto which the DUP and Sinn Fein as the two dominant parties have on the formation of a government.
In the present crisis, that would allow for the formation of an Executive which either did not include Sinn Fein, did not include the DUP or which excluded both and involved the smaller parties running a minority administration and attempting to persuade one of the bigger parties to back them on key Assembly votes.
Speaking to a party which has had a disastrous year, losing seats in both the Assembly and Westminster, leading to a leadership change, Mr Swann told the gathering in Armagh on Saturday: “Conference, I am sick of progress in Northern Ireland being held up because one party is being swung by the tail by a TD [Gerry Adams] who has no mandate in Northern Ireland.
“It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an Executive of the willing. A voluntary coalition.
“So today I call on the secretary of state to start that process, and for those who either can’t do it or aren’t willing to do it – get out of the way.”
The government was represented at the conference by NIO junior minister Chloe Smith. In a speech to the party, she said: “The Northern Ireland Civil Service assesses that without a proper budget being set by the end of November it will begin running out of money in December ... so time really is very tight. From today we have nine days to get an agreement.”
Labour’s shadow secretary of state Owen Smith, warned that direct rule would mean unmitigated Tory austerity and even more entrenched positions in local politics.
Referring to the acute crisis in the NHS in Northern Ireland, Mr Swann said it was “abhorrent” that despite that situation being well known “politics is being placed ahead of patients”.
And, rounding on the two big parties Mr Swann added: “It’s time to leave behind parties that cannot govern. Parties that are incompetent at governing. Parties that cannot agree a way forward.
“It’s time to leave behind parties that are bankrupting Northern Ireland.”
Then, putting emphasis on the word “corrupt”, he added: “It’s time to leave behind parties that put themselves first; parties that are corrupt ... government can’t or shouldn’t simply be, lining the pockets of those who support you, or lining your own pockets”.
Mr Swann did not once mention his predecessor, Mike Nesbitt, in his speech – although he did mention numerous party colleagues by name, including the party’s newest councillor. Afterwards, UUP sources said that this had been an oversight and that there was no difficulty between Mr Nesbitt, who was present at the conference, and Mr Swann.
The conference also heard from Mark Tipper, whose 19-year-old brother was murdered by the IRA’s Hyde Park bomb in 1982. He said that “one man and one man alone ... Tony Blair” was responsible for the chief suspect, John Downey, walking free from court after receiving a ‘letter of comfort’ which blocked him from standing trial.