Swann’s conference speech left us with more questions than answers

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Robin Swann became leader of the UUP at the worst possible time. Mike Nesbitt’s plan for a rebuilt, re-energised party had come crashing to the ground in March’s Assembly election, taking Nesbitt as the main casualty.

Within days of Swann replacing him (the first time since January 1974 that there wasn’t a formal contest) Theresa May called a general election and Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott lost their seats to the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The party, which barely a year earlier had begun to believe that it really was back in business, had to face the reality that survival – as a relevant, stand-alone vehicle – may not, in fact, be possible.

Which is why Swann, a man who didn’t expect to be leader and who didn’t plot a path to the job, found himself making one of the most important speeches in the party’s history.

He had no triumphs to boast of. No great election victories to roar from the rooftops. No evidence of an electoral surge to take comfort in. Oddly, what he did do was reference Lord Carson (who left politics bitterly disappointed) and Terence O’Neill (who was destroyed by his own party colleagues).

The golden rule of a conference speech is to leave your audience wanting more. Swann left them with three questions: what did he mean by ‘radical moderates’; what was contained in his vision of a ‘new unionism’; and did his call for a ‘voluntary coalition’ embrace the possibility that such a coalition would not, necessarily, include unionists?

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t name-check Mike Nesbitt. How could he, when his speech included; “When we reflect on and analyse the results of the last two elections, we must do it with total honesty. Conference, it is clear to me that we have to win back the hearts and minds of unionism.” In other words, win back the very people who hadn’t been won back under Nesbitt’s leadership; along with those who had left because of his leadership.

Two other things struck me as odd. A week ago Swann said; “This party will do everything within its power to promote a single education system so that generations to come can be freed from the shackles of sectarianism.”

His first conference speech as leader would have been the ideal platform to flesh out that position and add meat to the bones. He chose not to. Indeed, his brief comments about education were confined to budgets.

In pre-conference interviews he insisted that the UUP would not merge with the DUP. Yet in his conference speech he didn’t mention that, either, nor rule out the possibility of pacts or election ‘arrangements’.

What is the point of setting out a position and role for the UUP – arguing that people deserve choice – but not ruling out a deal which would deny that choice? Some of his sharpest criticisms – and they got the most applause – were clearly aimed at the DUP; yet he pulled his punches when it came to any future deals. Why accuse a party of corruption, but not rule out a pact with them?

Anyway, back to the three questions I mentioned earlier. I’ve no idea what he meant by the party needing to become ‘radical moderates’. It was almost a throwaway line.

Was Nesbitt’s line about voting UUP and then SDLP the act of a ‘radical moderate’? Or Trimble’s decision to push the party towards a deal with Sinn Fein? Or even Terence O’Neill’s perceived ‘moderation’ in the mid-late 1960s?

But, as I say, he didn’t explain what he meant by the term, nor how ‘radical moderates’ would manifest their radicalism and their moderation. We need to hear more from him.

We also need to hear more from him about ‘new unionism’. What, for example, does ‘new unionism’ have to say about same-sex marriage, possible changes to abortion law and the accommodation of an ‘Irish identity’ in Northern Ireland? What does it have to say about parading, the role of the Orange Order, the argument in favour of integrated education and the specific differences between the unionism of the UUP and the unionism of the DUP? When you’re fighting for electoral/political survival then you need something a damn sight more substantial than throwaway lines and soundbites.

Swann’s comment about a voluntary coalition received loud applause (unlike his references to ‘radical moderates’ and ‘new unionism’). But he needs to flesh that out, too. Here’s the TUV’s position: ‘With no party big enough to govern on its own, coalition is inevitable. As elsewhere, for it to work, it must be a coalition of the willing. Those, after an election, who can agree a programme for government on the key economic and social issues and who together can command the requisite majority in the Assembly, form the government – whoever they are’.

As it stands today, I think the 50 SF/SDLP/Greens/Alliance/PBP would meet those requirements and could form an Executive – without any unionists (although the TUV’s plans include ‘weighted majority’ protections for those not in the Executive).

Personally, I think there is a continuing need for the UUP. But it will not survive without a very clear outline of what it sees as its role, relevance, direction and purpose.

I didn’t hear that from Swann on Saturday. He says he believes in choice for unionists and an alternative to the DUP. I still don’t know what that choice and alternative is.