The Ulster Unionist Party is preparing to be led by its fifth leader in 10 years after a shock announcement by Robin Swann that he is to resign.
The UUP leader announced yesterday that he would be stepping down at the party’s annual general meeting in February because of the strain of the job on his young family.
Last night Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie confirmed to the News Letter that he is considering putting his name forward to be leader. Fellow MLA Steve Aiken was more guarded about his intentions but did not rule out standing for the UUP’s top position.
Mr Swann took over as leader without a contest after the resignation of Mike Nesbitt following a deeply disappointing Assembly election in 2016 and was then plunged almost immediately into a snap general election in which the party lost its two MPs.
In May the UUP lost votes and seats in the council elections and then in the European election, the party’s vote plumbed new depths as it did not even come close to retaining what has been a secure UUP seat for the 50 years of European elections in Northern Ireland.
At the time, Mr Swann accepted that “it was a bad result ... I thought about it and if the opportunity comes up, if the party wants me to go, I’ve no problem standing aside as leader”.
However, there was no obvious pressure on Mr Swann to resign – partly because the party is so shrunken that there is now a very small pool from which to draw a new leader.
Yesterday’s announcement therefore caught many UUP members by surprise.
In a statement, the North Antrim MLA said: “Over the last number of months I have been reflecting on my position as leader of the UUP and the impact it has on my role as a husband and a father.
“I have concluded that one is taking up the lion’s share of my time to the detriment of the other. It is unfair to my young family to allow this to continue.
“It has been an honour and a privilege to lead the UUP and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to do so. I have informed the party chairman that I will not be submitting my name for re-election at the next AGM of the party.
“The UUP faces its challenges, but I am determined in my remaining time as leader to bring forward the changes required to make it a competitive electoral force once again.”
Mr Swann pledged to “continue to serve the party loyally and faithfully as our Assembly Member in North Antrim, an area which has been devastated by recent job losses”, and added: “I want to thank party members for their support over the last number of years. I also want to thank my wife Jenny and my children, Freya and Evan, for all the love and support they have given me, and without whom it would not have been possible to do the job I do.”
Mr Beattie told the News Letter: “I don’t think people really understand fully the pressures that party leaders are under. They do the jobs without extra resources and in a smallish party like ourselves with very limited support.
“Robin had a difficult two-and-a-half years with multiple elections, with Brexit being continuous throughout those years and he’s done so while having a very young family and a son who has got congenital heart problems.”
Mr Beattie said that Mr Swann was standing down for “very applaudable reasons” which reflected favourably on his character.
When asked if he would stand for the leadership, Mr Beattie said that he would “have to look at this see what support I’ll have within the party”, and it would come down to whether “people like my brand of unionism”.
The former Royal Irish officer said: “I can lead people, but people have to [be willing to] be led. If I have that support, I will seriously consider putting my name forward to be leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.”
Setting out the need for unionism to reach those drifting away from unionism, he added: “If I can’t explain that to them and explain the rationale for it, then I’m not the right person to be leader.”
The other most likely leadership contender, South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken, was non-committal about what he will do. When asked if he would consider standing, the former Royal Navy submarine commander said that he would be “taking time to reflect” before making a decision.
He paid tribute to the “real sacrifice” which Mr Swann had made to lead the party at a time of crisis, saying that he “did a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances”.