Robin Swann: I’ll quit as UUP leader if that is what the party wants

Robin Swann has said that he is willing to stand aside as Ulster Unionist Party leader if that is what the party wants.

Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 7:30 am

The understated North Antrim MLA, who has been UUP leader for two years, said that on Monday night he considered resigning after his party saw its vote plumb record depths in the European election.

However, he said that he had decided not to resign and no one within the party had suggested that he should do so.

On Saturday, Mr Swann will face his party’s executive following a dismal electoral performance.

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Robin Swann enjoys a lighter moment amid the gloom and disappointment of Monday's European election count at Meadowbank Leisure Centre in Magherafelt

UUP candidate Danny Kennedy polled just 53,052 first preference votes – 9.2% of the total vote – and did not even come close to retaining what has been a secure UUP seat for the 50 years of European elections in Northern Ireland.

One former senior Ulster Unionist told the News Letter that he had voted for Alliance’s Naomi Long because of her pro-EU stance. Alluding to unionist warnings that to do so would endanger the Union, he added dismissively: “I didn’t feel that I needed to take a bath after it.”

Yesterday Mr Swann told the BBC: “I didn’t take on the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party because of ego or any sense of self-importance.”

It is the third consecutive electoral reverse under Mr Swann’s leadership, although the first of those elections – the 2017 general election – came just weeks after he had taken over from Mike Nesbitt, who had himself resigned after a bad Assembly election performance that year.

Mr Swann accepted that it was “not a good day” for his party and that “the messaging from our party could have been clearer”.

But he insisted that the UUP still had a significant future, pointing to the 95,000 votes it had secured at the start of this month in the council elections.

Mr Swann, who is well regarded within the UUP but whose style of leadership has been criticised as ineffectual, will face a meeting of the party’s ruling executive on Saturday.

A UUP spokesman said that the meeting was a scheduled quarterly meeting and had not been called because of the outcome of the election.

Mr Swann said that on Saturday he will “take soundings from them [the executive]” about his and the party’s future.

“I’m the leader of the party and the buck stops with me ... yesterday’s result presented us with a number of fundamental questions that we have to answer to be credible in the next election.”

Last night he told the BBC: “Last night when I came home, it was a bad result, it was a bad night, it wasn’t a good place to be.

“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.”

Earlier, he said: “At this minute in time I am the leader. If the party wants to go in a different direction, I’m big enough to take that.”

He added: “I’m big enough to do whatever needs to be done for the good of the Ulster Unionist Party.”

Mr Swann made clear: “I’m not stepping down. I’m not running away from the responsibility that the party gave me at the last AGM.”

Mr Swann was elected leadeer unopposed. The pool of potential UUP leaders is now so shrunken that the only likely candidate for the leadership – unless Mike Nesbitt was to seek a return to the post – would be Doug Beattie.

A decision to move to a Beattie leadership would almost certainly involve a more fundamental shift in the party’s stance to take it in a more liberal direction. Yesterday Mr Beattie could not be contacted.

Jim Nicholson, who for 30 years was the UUP’s MEP, also could not be contacted. Nor could Lord Empey, the party chairman who will chair Saturday’s executive meeting.

On Monday night, former UUP leader Mike Nesbitt tweeted: “Devastated for Danny Kennedy and the Ulster Unionist Party.

“We need to think hard about the way forward. The Scotland results are a big threat to the future of the UK. Do not ignore!”