Sam McBride: Air of defiance from a party vowing to stay and fight

Leader Robin Swann with his wife after his speech to the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Armagh
Leader Robin Swann with his wife after his speech to the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Armagh

The subdued mood on Saturday at its conference in Armagh was inevitable after a horrific electoral year for the UUP.

The party, now a faint shadow of the entity which shaped and then governed Northern Ireland for decades, is just about clinging together in the face of the dominant DUP and a political landscape which is driving voters to two big parties on either side of the political divide.

Given that context, what happened on Saturday was significant.

Although there was no pretence that the party is in a good place, there was an air of defiance about proceedings.

In previous years, March’s psychological blow for unionism when it lost its Stormont majority would have led to vocal murmurings and then public calls for a single unionist party.

Many of the individuals who would have led those calls – as well as those on the opposing liberal wing of the party – have now left. Those who remain seem more committed to the party and to keeping it together rather than to ideology.

Despite the repeated electoral disasters of the best part of two decades, many of them self-made, the UUP was on Saturday making very clear that it has no intention of suing for peace with the DUP to recreate a monolithic unionist party.

Even in this disastrous year for the party, 103,314 people voted UUP in the Assembly election and 83,280 voted for it in the Westminster poll.

Judging by what was said from the platform on Saturday – and what has been said from UUP platforms for many years – that is more a vote against the DUP than it is a vote for a clear and coherent UUP position.

Given how squeezed the shrunken party is now going to find itself in media coverage, Robin Swann used the opportunity of a live televised address to explain who he is to an electorate which largely probably has little idea that he is the UUP leader.

He spoke personally about his working-class roots – the plumber father, the hospital cleaner mother, the Housing Executive family home.

Mr Swann’s speech was politely, if not ecstatically, received by his audience. There was no hint of the sort of implosion which beset Alasdair McDonnell in his first conference speech as SDLP leader.

Nevertheless, after six months in the job the new leader failed to convey what his ‘new unionism’ – the phrase used in the party’s televised broadcast last Friday and in his speech – entails.

Calling for voluntary coalition and opposing an Irish language act – neither of them representing new thinking – have thus far been the defining features of Mr Swann’s leadership.

Beyond being pro-Union and differentiated from the DUP, Mr Swann has not yet defined any clear ideological position.