UUP leader Swann urges move to Stormont voluntary coalition

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann delivering a speech during the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Armagh
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann delivering a speech during the Ulster Unionist Party conference in Armagh

The government must start the process of moving Northern Ireland from mandatory powersharing structures to a system of voluntary coalition, the Ulster Unionist leader has told his annual conference.

In his first conference speech as leader, Robin Swann said the current system - where the largest unionist and nationalist party must rule together - had polarised society and allowed single parties to block progress.

Mandatory coalition was a mainstay of the historic 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which the UUP played a pivotal role in delivering.

“It is time for the institutions to move on, it is time for politics to move on, it is time for that change that allows Northern Ireland politicians to form an Executive of the willing - a voluntary coalition,” Mr Swann told the party faithful at the Armagh City Hotel.

“So today I call on the Secretary of State (James Brokenshire) to start that process, and for those who either can’t do it or aren’t willing to do it - get out of the way.”

Reflecting on UUP losses in March’s snap Assembly election and the summer’s snap General Election, the North Antrim Assembly member called on members to become “radical moderates” and fight to bring politics back to the centre ground.

Former leader Mike Nesbitt resigned in the wake of March’s poor showing at the polls, with Mr Swann succeeding him without challenge.

On Saturday, he acknowledged the challenge of toppling the Democratic Unionists and once again emerging as the dominant force within unionism was a hard one. He said the party needed to “rebuild, re-energise and re-connect”.

“The road ahead is not easy, but who ever said it would be?” he said.

Mr Swann added: “Conference, look at what the extremes have done for our country - crisis and stalemate and talks process after talks process.

“I am not content just to leave them to it.

“It’s time to leave behind parties that cannot govern. Parties that are incompetent at governing. Parties that cannot agree a way forward.”

He identified health and education as key priorities.

On his party’s opposition to an Irish language act - the issue at the heart of the current impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Stormont - Mr Swann insisted the UUP had not lurched to the right.

He said the language should be allowed to grow at its own pace, without political interference.

“It is not scaremongering to express concerns that legislation would lead to further division in society,” he said.

“We would no longer be reliant on flags or painted kerb stones - we would know whose territory we were in by the road signs.”

On Brexit, he accused republicans of trying to use the debate as a “proxy vehicle for a United Ireland”.

“It won’t work, but it will further divide what we have already got,” he warned.

During his speech, Mr Swann portrayed himself as not fitting the mould of previous party leaders. He reflected on a childhood growing up in a Housing Executive house in Kells, north Antrim, his first job in a meat factory and returning to education to gain a degree through the Open University.

“I may not reflect who the party used to be, but I believe that I do reflect who we are now and who we represent,” he said.

“I say we no longer fit inside the old box, nor do we occupy the big house.

“In our make-up, now more than ever, we reflect society - we reflect Northern Ireland and we reflect unionism.”

He cited as his “guiding influence” former UUP leader Captain Terence O’Neill - a moderate whose attempts to reform society in the late 1960s were thwarted by more hard-line unionists.

Mr Swann also referred indirectly to recent high-profile allegations linking DUP politicians with paramilitary figures.

“What this party will not do in any circumstances, will be to give political cover, or show any ambiguity which allows any individual or group to be community workers by day and extortionists or political bullies by night - loyalist or republican,” he said.

“Let me be clear ... we will not trade our principles for possible cheap electoral gain by buying votes, whilst turning a blind eye or ignoring unacceptable practices which continue to cause sheer misery in their communities.”

Mr Swann said he wanted to deliver a “new unionism”.

“A unionism that can be confident without being arrogant,” he said.

“A unionism that can be proud without being condescending. A unionism that can be embracing. A unionism that doesn’t rely on fear.

“A unionism that can win for everyone.”