By David Young, PA
Incoming Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie has acknowledged his liberal outlook may see the party lose some members as he strives to reach out to new supporters.
The Upper Bann MLA and British army veteran said he may have to “shrink to grow” as he moves the party toward the centre ground.
Mr Beattie (55) was deemed elected as the new UUP leader on Monday after it was confirmed that he was the only member to put his name forward to succeed the resigning Steve Aiken.
The ex-soldier, whose appointment will be ratified by the party’s council at a meeting on May 27th, said he wanted to set a progressive and unifying agenda.
Mr Beattie has established a reputation at Stormont as one of his party’s most liberal voices on a variety of social issues, including abortion and LGBT rights.
Mr Beattie, who served in the British army for 34 years and was recognised for bravery in combat, said he would reach out to conservative UUP members to assure them they have “nothing to fear” from his leadership but he acknowledged that some may ultimately choose to leave the party.
“As the Ulster Unionist Party leader I want to grow and sometimes they say you have to shrink in order to grow and if I have to shrink to grow, that is exactly what I will do,” he said.
“But we will look for policies that are progressive.
“We will look for uniting people, we will look for a union of people over the coming months and the coming years.
“And we will make Northern Ireland work.”
He added: “There will be clearly some people within my party, I’m not talking about necessarily elected representatives, but there may be people who are members who do not like my liberal credentials.
“Some people may just not like Doug Beattie, they may not like my style of leadership.
“And if that’s the case, they may decide that ‘I don’t want to follow Doug Beattie as a leader, I may wish to go elsewhere’.
“In which case, I have to accept that.
“And I may have to shrink.
“But there are people out there who have got very conservative values – it’s really important on me and it’s a function of leadership for me to reach out to those people who’ve got conservative values and say ‘you have nothing to fear from Doug Beattie’.
“In fact, I will tread a path to make sure that your voice is heard and I will never denigrate your opinion.
“But some no matter what I say may not wish to follow me and that’s where we may have to shrink slightly.”
With the DUP having elected Edwin Poots as leader, a traditionalist with a conservative stance on many social issues, Mr Beattie was asked whether his election represented a significant realignment within the broader unionist family, potentially creating more clear blue water between his party and its main rival on policies.
He responded: “I’ve always seen clear blue water between the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party on many different issues, certainly on our policies that we stand on – if that’s widened, then it’s widened, but that’s good for unionism, because that gives unionism a choice and those disenfranchised unionists who may be more centre or centre right, will find a home with the Ulster Unionist Party, those who are maybe more to the right may well find a home with a DUP.”
Mr Beattie added: “We are two distinct and very separate parties.
“I’ve always seen us as being different.”
He said the “mammoth” challenge of dealing with Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol would be a priority.
The new UUP leader accused others of “lying” by claiming that Stormont could vote to get rid of the protocol in 2024.
Mr Beattie said MLAs could only vote to scrap certain parts of the Protocol and that then triggered a two-year process whereby those elements would be replaced with something else.
He made clear he would support a veterinary deal with the EU as a way to reduce the number of agri-food checks.
“The Protocol is damaging the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and as the Ulster Unionist Party we helped create the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, we’re going to do all we can to stop it being damaged,” he said.
“And if that means attacking the Protocol then we have to attack the Protocol.
“But we will also be honest with the electorate out there, I think people are spinning lies to try and garner party support and people are saying you can vote away the Protocol.
“You cannot vote away the Protocol.
“You can vote away articles five to 10 of the Protocol in four years’ time.
“And then we go into a two-year period where those articles five to 10 are replaced with something else.
“So the Protocol remains and it damages the Belfast Agreement.
“So yes, we need to get rid of it.
“But we’re not a party who stands with our hands in our pocket sucking our teeth and saying ‘oh we don’t like the Protocol’.
“We have put up alternates to replace the Protocol.
“We have said quite clearly that we would support an SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) treaty with the European Union.
“We will do anything that we could possibly do to either feed in to either minimise but most certainly get rid of the protocol.”
Doug Beattie said relations within the Stormont Executive were currently not good, and it would “not take much to tip it over the edge”, but he said he was focused on bringing stability to the institutions.