Pro-Union politics lies in the gutter due to the DUP, says Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann

At the Ulster Unionist Party Annual General Meeting and Spring Conference at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast on Saturday is, from left, Jim Nicholson MEP, Jan Zahradil MEP from the Czech Republic, Robin Swann MLA and Lord Empey.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
At the Ulster Unionist Party Annual General Meeting and Spring Conference at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast on Saturday is, from left, Jim Nicholson MEP, Jan Zahradil MEP from the Czech Republic, Robin Swann MLA and Lord Empey.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
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Unionist unity seemed a distant prospect on Saturday, when the Ulster Unionist leader fiercely criticised the DUP.

Robin Swann spoke to members at the party annual general meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast, weeks before the council elections.

Mr Swann said that reform of councils should have been “to deliver better, more effective services more efficiently”.

“Instead of a swathe of new powers, only planning and a few tools for economic regeneration were actually handed over. Even the boundaries of the new council areas were hijacked and manipulated by the DUP and Sinn Fein for entirely political reasons.

“How does it make sense that only a couple of miles away from here, heading up the main arterial road in East Belfast that people in Dundonald find themselves in a Council area almost entirely focused on Lisburn instead of the city that they all will say they live in?”

In a speech that was often interrupted by applause, he added: “The DUP and Sinn Fein wrecked all round them at Stormont, we cannot let them wreck local government too and bring the country to its knees.”

Mr Swann said: “At the party conference in October past, I said that there was a battle to save the Union from the DUP. I cannot say my view has changed. With the DUP at the helm, pro-Union politics lies in the gutter.”

He said: “The RHI scandal nearly bankrupted the country and now stands to bankrupt legitimate users.”

Unionism, he added, was now in a minority at Stormont and in Belfast City Hall.

“Their fingerprints all over the disastrous Historical Investigations Unit,” he said.

“Arlene Foster has radicalised nationalist opinion in a way the republican movement could only dream of.”

He said: “Unionism should be the comfortable home of choice for people irrespective of their class, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.

“You can be strong in your unionism without being belligerent and disrespectful.”

Mr Swann talked about the political impasse over power sharing: “While Stormont remains in deep freeze, there is zero pressure coming from the UK government who seem content to allow Northern Ireland to stagnate as long as we give minimum bother until they’ve finished with their internal battles over Brexit.

“So Sinn Fein intransigence is being facilitated rather than challenged and exposed.”

He added: “I say to the UK government and Irish government that you now reap what you have sown. You pandered to the DUP and Sinn Fein. You allowed them to exclude the other parties.”

The North Antrim MLA referred to NHS problems: “We are in the midst of unprecedented crisis — never before in the history of Northern Ireland have so many people been waiting [for appointments], and for so long. And yet our health service is completely rudderless – just when it needs leadership the most.

“If this isn’t an example of why we need direct rule I don’t know what is.”

On the EU talks, he said: “The DUP’s inept handling of Brexit right from before the referendum has now led us back to the NI only backstop that they first missed in 2017 despite my warnings.”

Mr Swann paid tribute the outgoing MEP Jim Nicholson, “one of the longest serving members of the European parliament”. Mr Nicholson had “served his country and his party well at the heart of the EU for 30 years and we owe him a debt of gratitude”.