The Ulster Unionist Party’s new leader is set to be Robin Swann after he submitted his name yesterday (Friday) on the deadline for nominations – and not a single other candidate came forward.
Mr Swann, the party’s chief whip at Stormont, will formally be ratified as the 16th Ulster Unionist leader in its 112-year history at the party’s annual general meeting in a fortnight’s time.
But last night it became clear that the event will now be a coronation rather than a contest.
Mr Swann, who was always one of only two likely candidates to succeed Mike Nesbitt, is expected to take the party in a more traditional direction than the incumbent.
Mr Nesbitt has been leader for five years but resigned immediately in the wake of this month’s deeply disappointing election result for the party.
Mr Swann is a member of the loyal orders and is steeped in the history of the UUP. He is also a past president of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster.
In a statement issued on Facebook yesterday evening, the North Antrim MLA said: “I can confirm that I have submitted papers today to seek election as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, after receiving support from across the party including members of our Westminster, Assembly and local government teams and I look forward to our Annual General Meeting on the 8th of April.”
Last night the man who might have represented the liberal side of the UUP in a contest, Doug Beattie, confirmed to the News Letter that he had not put his name forward.
The former Royal Irish Regiment captain, who won the Military Cross for acts of outstanding bravery during the Afghan War, said that he was supporting Mr Swann.
“I think that our party is in a position of change and what we need is a leader that people will follow,” the Upper Bann MLA said.
“I just don’t think I’m that person at this time.
“I think I’ve an apprenticeship to do. I need to understand the nuances of politics; I just don’t think that I have that at this moment in time.”
When asked what sort of leader he believed Mr Swann will be, Mr Beattie said: “I think he will be slightly more traditional, more conservative, but will allow that liberal unionist voice which I represent to play its part.”
The deadline for nominations for the post of leader passed at noon yesterday.
The decision of the UUP to effectively appoint a leader rather than hold a contest means that the debate about the role and purpose of the party – which many party members said the party needed to have in the wake of an election which saw it come in behind the SDLP for the first time – will now not happen in public.
Former Ulster Unionist chairman David Campbell had publicly appealed for former leader Tom Elliott to return as interim leader because he did not believe that any other member had the ability to lead the party at this point.
On Monday, Mr Campbell said: “There is serious concern from members that, notwithstanding their respect for many of our elected representatives, there is no one with the requisite experience and calibre to lead the party at this difficult time. No one that is except the party’s MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and former Leader Tom Elliott.”
Mr Campbell, a long-standing proponent of unionist unity, suggested that such an appointment would facilitate closer links with the DUP because of the fact that Mr Elliott is himself a unionist unity candidate, having been elected as party of a pact with the DUP.
However, Mr Elliott repeatedly made clear that he was not interested in returning to the post.
Meanwhile, a UUP source yesterday told the News Letter that Mr Campbell had applied to be co-opted on to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council in place of John Stewart, who has been elected to Stormont had to vacate his council seat due to the ban on double-jobbing.
The UUP source said that Mr Campbell had received no support whatsoever for being put on to the council, something which they linked to the mood of the party in relation to his unionist unity comments.
Mr Swann, a former pupil of Ballymena Academy, is a member of the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Royal Black Preceptory.
He has been an MLA since 2011, something which makes him one of the UUP’s most experienced MLAs.
The North Antrim MLA chaired the Public Accounts Committee over recent months, leading the committee’s inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.
His handling of that high profile and politically sensitive task won him plaudits for how the committee went about its work, something which involved him having to firmly interject when there were angry exchanges between the deputy chairman of the committee, the SDLP’s Daniel McCrossan, and the DUP’s Trevor Clarke.