23 Oct

A New Unionism – or just a new slogan?

Account Manager Jack Gibson reflects on Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann’s performance at his party conference, which took place in Armagh this weekend.

Reg Empey spoke the truth in his opening address to the Ulster Unionist’s Conference on Saturday, when he said Party Leader Robin Swann had been put through a ‘baptism of fire’.

Swann inherited a party in dire straits. It had been in decline for nearly two decades, had just lost more than a third of its representation in Stormont, and was about to lose both its Westminster seats in a surprise General Election.

Since then Swann has been pretty inconspicuous. He’s had precious few opportunities to raise his profile with the Assembly not sitting.

So, for us political anoraks, Saturday gave an exciting opportunity to see where Robin Swann planned to take his party.

As is customary, Swann has established a brand for the party under his leadership. His slogan ‘A New Unionism’ implied that the party would move ‘with the times’ and adopt more progressive positions – becoming “radical moderates”, as Swann put it.

But evidence from the conference suggests otherwise.

Mike Nesbitt, Swann’s predecessor as leader, already tried a more ‘moderate’ approach – and voters rejected it. So, Swann and his party colleagues spent a great deal of time at the conference attacking Sinn Féin’s calls for an Irish Language Act, and calling for justice for victims of IRA violence.

These are positions more associated with traditional unionism. As is calling for an end to mandatory coalition, which has been a recurring theme in Jim Allister’s oratory since he founded the TUV.

Overall, therefore, most observers at the conference came away feeling unclear about precisely what direction Swann plans to take the party.

He is, admittedly, ‘between a rock and a hard place’.

Any shift towards more traditional unionist positions shrinks the gap between the UUP and DUP, and risks renewed calls for ‘unionist unity’ – slang for a merger between the two parties. Meanwhile, as Nesbitt found to his cost, the party risks stepping on the toes of the buoyant Alliance party if it tries to become too ‘moderate’.

The party’s strong support base should be a source of hope for Swann. Even after a disastrous year electorally, the conference was very well attended.

However, it must be said that the bulk of the delegates were gray-haired, and some were very frail. The party’s traditional support is ageing – unless Swann can find a credible message to draw in some new blood his problems, and the party’s, will continue to mount.

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