By David Young, PA
Decorated Army veteran Doug Beattie has been deemed elected as the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Upper Bann Assembly member will succeed the resigning Steve Aiken in the role after it was confirmed he was the only candidate to put his name forward for election.
Party chair Danny Kennedy told a Stormont press conference that Mr Beattie, 55, was therefore deemed elected, subject to ratification by the party council on May 27.
Mr Beattie, who served as a soldier for 34 years and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in combat, promised a “progressive and unifying” agenda.
“I feel the weight of expectation on my shoulder, we are an historic party, we are the party of (Edward) Carson and (James) Craig, but we are a modernising party and we are a party that wants to reach out,” he said.
Ulster Unionist chairman Danny Kennedy confirms Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie is the only candidate seeking to lead the party.— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) May 17, 2021
His appointment needs to be ratified at a UUP council meeting on May 27. pic.twitter.com/3GUlVtvs0J
“And we will do that by reforming our message, by reforming our party structures, by bringing in more females and more young people, making our policies better understood and more crystallised and reaching to everybody to say that this is Northern Ireland, a place that we all want to live in, and let’s all work together to be able to live here.”
With the DUP having elected Edwin Poots as leader – a traditionalist with a conservative stance on many social issues – Doug 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. But what we’ve got here now is an opportunity to reach out to all unionists and say there is a party that you can vote for. And I’m obviously pitching that they vote for this party here because we will be the party that will be reaching out to them.”
Newly elected UUP leader Doug Beattie (subject to ratification on May 27) says his party helped create the Good Friday Agreement and will therefore protect it from the damage caused by the NI Protocol.— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) May 17, 2021
However he also says party must be honest with the public. pic.twitter.com/b9uJJwiG4J
Doug Beattie said relations within the Stormont Executive were not good, but he said he was focused on stability.
“I think the whole business of our institutions, our Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, it’s all fractious at the minute, we’re going through a really difficult time, it will not take much just to tip it over the edge,” he said.
“I think now all of the five parties who are part of the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to keep it going, not just because of Covid – that’s been a real glue to keep them going together – but I think they see that if we keep it going, if we can problem solve, then we can get through this really difficult time that we’re in at this moment.
“But we’re always on the brink at some stage or other, there’s always an issue.”
Doug Beattie said dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol would be a priority. He 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 get rid of certain parts of the Protocol and that then triggered a two-year process whereby those elements would be replaced with something else.
Mr Beattie made clear he would support a veterinary deal with the EU as a way to reduce the number of agri-food checks.
(Doug Beattie at Stormont earlier today)
“We know that there are some mammoth tasks ahead of us, not least the Protocol, which we will have to deal with in one way or another, and we will look to see how we can address that over the coming days,” he said.
“And all of these things will feed into a degree of instability, which is affecting Northern Ireland. But within that instability what we need to have is stable political parties, and the Unionist Party will stay stable, it will maintain the ground that it holds now as it reaches out to other people.
“So it’s a time of change. But it’s a time of stability. And we need to create that because it’s important for our society, it’s important for our business and our communities to have that stability.”
Doug Beattie added: “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.
“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 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 and Steve Aiken at Stormont last week)