Robin Swann: I haven’t moved UUP to the right at all

UUP leader Robin Swan in his office at Stormont
UUP leader Robin Swan in his office at Stormont

When Theresa May stunned the nation by calling a snap general election in April, Robin Swann was just 10 days into his new job as Ulster Unionist leader.

With the party still reeling from slipping to its worst ever result in March’s snap Assembly election,where it came back with just 10 MLAs, Mr Swann had virtually no time to impose his own thinking on the party.

As politics in Northern Ireland moved to more overt tribalism, the election was largely fought on the issue of the border and who could act as the loudest voice for either nationalism or unionism.

Unionist voters flocked to the DUP in unprecedented numbers and the UUP lost both of its MPs.

In one day, the party lost the key electoral gains which Mike Nesbitt had accumulated over his five years as leader.

Against that backdrop, Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Party conference is likely to be a fairly sombre affair.

Sitting in his office in a now eerily quiet Parliament Buildings, Mr Swann admitted: “It hasn’t been what we wanted and that comes from an electoral point of view ... two elections that probably shouldn’t have happened.

“What we witnessed was Northern Ireland being pushed to the extremes and that’s to the detriment not only of the Ulster Unionist Party, but it’s to the detriment of Northern Ireland because it can’t work and we’re seeing the outworkings of that now – we’ve got two big parties who can’t work together.”

However, he rejects suggestions that because voters are rallying behind two large parties on either side of the constitutional divide that the UUP will necessarily be squeezed still further in the middle.

He characterises the move towards the DUP in June’s general election as a “protest vote” in response to unionism losing its Stormont majority in March’s Assembly election adding: “My job is to convince those people to come back to the Ulster Unionist Party.”

As politics has increasingly revolved around the two dominant parties, Mr Swann has struggled to punch through with a distinctly Ulster Unionist message or to put his stamp on the party.

One area in which he has been increasingly vocal, to the obvious discomfort of the DUP, has been in opposing an Irish language act.

That opposition, coupled with Mr Swann’s more traditional Ulster Unionist background and membership of the loyal orders, has led to a picture of the party moving to the right after a period in which Mr Nesbitt had been leading it to the centre – so much so that he presented the UUP and SDLP as virtually a joint ticket in March’s election, something which went down badly with many core party supporters.

But the new leader is dismissive of that view, saying: “I don’t think the party has moved anywhere; I think we’ve stayed that moderate unionist party that we always have been and always will be.

“Under my leadership, there have been no strategic or policy decisions that have changed since 1998.

“There’s a perception out there, there’s a commentary that some people would like to put me and the party into that box but it’s not something that I accept.”

Mr Swann said that the idea that the party is moving to the right by opposing an Irish language act is particularly erroneous because the UUP has always opposed such legislation – although he makes clear that he has no issue with the language – since David Trimble’s time.

Sitting in the office which Mr Nesbitt once occupied and where he has replaced the Strangford MLA’s party family portraits with oil paintings of William and Mary of Orange, the UUP leader is reluctant to set out how he differs from his predecessor.

An obvious difference is that whereas Mr Nesbitt, a former broadcaster, was an experienced media operator but a newcomer to the party, Mr Swann has had a relatively low media profile but is steeped in the party’s history and structures.

“It’s not about being different; it’s about how I’m taking the party forward and where I see it going. I have things I want to do ... I’ll be setting out the stall for that on Saturday. I don’t think we’re politically that different; we’re both Ulster Unionists.”

Mr Nesbitt’s vision had been of oppositional politics, presenting a cross-community opposition to the DUP-Sinn Fein Executive.

Mr Swann, who was the UUP’s chief whip in the last Assembly, was a key link with the SDLP and said that the parties worked well together in opposition.

He said that he has a good relationship with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and that they speak regularly, but said that his decision about whether to enter any new Executive or again opt for opposition will be taken by the UUP – not simply as a consequence of whatever decision the now larger SDLP takes.