Senior Ulster Unionists have put the poor council election results behind them and are vowing to win back the legions of lost voters.
The party lost 13 councillors across Northern Ireland – including five in Belfast alone where they returned only two following Thursday’s poll.
And to add to the UUP’s woes, one of its two remaining Belfast councillors – Jim Rodgers – has had the whip withdrawn over election literature attacking the Alliance party.
However, UUP leader Robin Swann denied the election result was a disaster for the party that was once the pre-eminent voice of unionism.
“It is disappointing for us, I’ll admit that, there’s no point trying to dress this in any other direction,” he said.
However, Mr Swann said the UUP “isn’t going anywhere,” and added: “We still have a message to give to unionism and the wider Northern Ireland.”
Newly elected Ballyclare councillor Danny Kinahan said there “is a lot to learn” from the poor election result.
The former UUP MP for South Antrim said: “If we don’t take on board that there was a major protest we are going nowhere, but at the same time how on earth do we get ourselves as a party linked in to the young, understanding unionists, at the same time as understanding them. So I think we have a lot of work to do.
“Hidden within there was a protest against Stormont, against Brexit and against orange and green. There is a mass of people coming through who know nothing about the Troubles, know nothing about the past, and just want a stable society.”
Cllr Kinahan added: “If we want to keep the Union strong then it must be the Union for absolutely everybody – everyone who thinks that being part of the United Kingdom is important – and we’ve got to look at how we get that across.”
The DUP lost eight seats across the Province but still came out on top with 122 councillors, while Sinn Fein remained static on 105.
Alliance were the big winners gaining 21 seats, taking the party’s total to 53. The SDLP were down seven councillors with 59 returned.
Councillor Jim Rodgers said he had no regrets over a canvassing leaflet targeting the Alliance party, however, it was later revealed that the party whip had been withdrawn and the matter referred to the UUP disciplinary committee.
The pamphlet claimed Alliance was “closely aligned” to Sinn Fein, and that the party repeatedly “votes with the Provisional IRA’s political wing”.
At least two the UUP councillors to lose their seats in Belfast said it had damaged their chances of getting re-elected.
However, Cllr Rodgers branded the criticism “absolutely ridiculous.”
He said: “It was a canvass leaflet with a small piece in it about the Union being paramount, but it also said that, on Belfast City Council, Alliance supported the Provisional IRA’s political wing on several occasions. A lot of people have said to me, ‘what is wrong with that? – it’s a statement of fact.’”
Cllr Rodgers added: “It was nothing to do with the leaflet causing the backlash...absolutely nothing. It’s a case of people deciding to support another party, be it the DUP...but I have no doubt the Ulster Unionist Party will be back.”
Retail NI chief executive, Glyn Roberts has urged all local councillors to support the regeneration of Northern Ireland’s towns and cities.
He said action was need “reboot our high streets” and to “reform business rates which continue to cripple our members”.
Meanwhile, fresh all-party talks aimed at restoring the Stormont executive will begin today, almost three weeks after dissident republicans shot dead journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry.
The DUP and Sinn Fein remain the dominant parties involved but the council elections showed greater support for parties occupying the centre ground between unionists and republicans.
Alliance and the Green Party now enjoy around 13% of the vote share compared to just short of 8% at the last council election five years ago.
The parties designating as unionist have a total vote of less than 42% – down from 48%. The combined nationalist vote now stands at 36.3% compared to 38% in 2015.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said negotiators in the all-party talks “must listen to the clear message sent by voters – it’s time for politicians to get back to work”.