New leader takes wheel of already listing vessel

Posted By: October 23, 2017

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, October 23, 2017

Since Robin Swann took the wheel of the already listing vessel that is the Ulster Unionist Party,  he’s been an inconspicuous leader, his profile stunted by sporadic media appearances and Stormont’s suspension.

The situation he inherits could not be bleaker. Its symbolic connection with Westminster has been severed and the party relegated behind the SDLP in terms of (suspended) assembly representation with 10 MLAs. The UUP’s trajectory of decline appears irreversible.

Alliances in recent years with the Conservatives and less formally with the SDLP have not gained electoral approval. Mike Nesbitt fell on his sword in March having failed to convey a consistent and coherent vision that voters would buy.

Within ten days of the new UUP leader taking office, Theresa May called the election that would see Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott lose their seats. With the possibility of another assembly election in the near-to-medium term, there may yet be another sharp shock in store for the UUP. If not, Robin Swann hopes to use the time between now and the 2019 local government elections to regroup and attempt to refashion the party in his preferred image – which even after Saturday is vague.

As a broad church, the UUP suffers from an identity crisis. The party seems instinctively to drift to the right but corrects itself when it gets too close to the DUP. Under Mr. Swann’s leadership, however, it has appeared to shift further right than its larger rival, taking an uncompromising stance on an Irish language act, for example.

Saturday’s speech offered an opportunity for the leader to set out his vision for the UUP and any plans for reviving its fortunes. He spoke of the party “shaking off preconceptions,” “opening new chapters,” and of being “radical moderates” yet spent much of the time attacking Sinn Féin.

The DUP elephant in the room was never mentioned by name and only alluded to occasionally. Unfortunately, the “new unionism” Mr. Swann spoke of looks a lot like old unionism and the whiff of staleness is difficult to disguise. With an aging, depleted membership, the once dominant force in Northern Ireland politics risks becoming a zombie party running on obligation rather than passion.

While he’s sincere and enthusiastic, it’s not apparent from Saturday’s speech that Robin Swann has the necessary qualities or formula to inspire what’s left of the party’s grassroots and arrest its electoral decline.

But arguably, there’s nobody up to that task.