New UUP leader Doug Beattie has challenged those within the party to help him bring it into the 21st century.
owever, the Army veteran also had a message for those who think he is too liberal to lead – “get on board or look elsewhere”.
The Upper Bann MLA was emphatic on Monday after being announced as the unchallenged successor to Steve Aiken.
Responding to concerns that his views on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion might be too progressive for some colleagues, Mr Beattie said he wanted to modernise the party and would work to convince those sceptical of his plans.
“We need a modern, forward thinking, progressive political party that takes the values of the Ulster Unionist Party and brings them into the 21st century and beyond. That’s what we have to look at, that’s what we have to work towards, that’s what I’m going to be driving to, more young people, more women, more representation, more diversity,” he said.
Mr Beattie acknowledged there was “always pushback” with any changes.
“Some people don’t want to see rights, that’s just the way they are unfortunately, if there’s pushback I will speak, I will engage, I will explain, but at the end of the day there will be a vision that they either get on board with or look elsewhere.”
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph shortly after he was confirmed as leader Mr Beattie revealed finding himself in the role had taken him by surprise.
He said he believed his life experience and leadership skills gained in the military would set him out from other politicians at Stormont and that while he wanted to extend the olive branch to everyone, he would also take difficult decisions when necessary.
The retired Army Captain rejected DUP counterpart Edwin Poots’ approach to dealing with the Northern Ireland Protocol and said solving it would require a willingness to engage with all sides.
Mr Poots in an interview with the Sunday Life newspaper said getting rid of the Northern Ireland Protocol would be his top priority in the coming months.
Mr Beattie also spoke about his vision for protecting the Union by making Northern Ireland somewhere everyone wanted to live and admitted his perfect scenario would be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland as a whole.
Mr Beattie said UUP leader was never a position he expected to be in a month ago.
“It just sort of comes about nearly by accident, in many ways my whole life has been nearly an accident, my military career, my progression, my role as an author, a councillor, an MLA, now as a leader, nothing has been done by design, it’s all been done purely by circumstance,” he said.
The Upper Bann MLA said that as a military man he took an unfavourable view of politicians, but this softened as he got older.
“You start to realise politics affects every aspect of your life. It’s very akin to being in the military, you serve people. That reluctance was overtaken by a will to want to serve not just my constituents, but the wider Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I never saw myself as an MLA, never mind the leader of the UUP, a lot of people think you get into politics and automatically think you have a thirst for high office. My thirst was to serve the people.”
Mr Beattie said he thought being a politician with rich life experience set him apart from some colleagues.
“Edwin Poots is a career politician, he has got an impeccable CV, but so had Arlene Foster and things didn’t work out exactly the way she wanted,” the army veteran said.
“I’ve lived a life outside of politics I’ve seen things around the world which influence how I believe in things, I’ve seen terrible travesties with different people around the world, it’s shaped who I am today.
“The service I’ve got through my leadership in the military will serve me when I deal with people, there will be difficult decisions to make and I will always hold out the hand of friendship, but people confuse friendship with weakness, you have to be strong when you’re a leader and I will do that, but I will do that in a manner where I can bring people with me, the last thing you want to do is alienate anybody.”
Mr Beattie said he would never follow the DUP’s approach and end north-south corporation over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He noted the importance of Health Minister Robin Swann’s engagement with counterparts in the Republic of Ireland.
“We will engage with the EU, the Irish government, political parties, with business, we will engage with everybody. If you don’t get your message out, if you don’t tell people where the issues are they’ll ignore you,” the Upper Bann MLA said.
He said if the protocol “walked all over the rights” of people in Northern Ireland and if it was not addressed the Good Friday Agreement would be “eroded”
The Military Cross winner acknowledged the Union was facing difficulties right across the United Kingdom He noted that the Union had faced challenges throughout its existence, specifically referencing the departure of the Irish Republic.
“I regret that they left I wish we had a single Ireland as part of the UK, people can laugh or scoff at that, but it’s a fair aspiration for me to say that’s what I want, but we’ve moved on from that and we just need to deal with the place we are now,” Mr Beattie said.
Asked by the BBC about outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster’s comments that she would leave Northern Ireland in the event of Irish unity the army veteran said he would not be doing the same.
“If there was a united Ireland then I am staying, because the people I represent won’t be able to just walk away, they will have to stay and if they stay I need to stay with them and if I can represent them I will,” he said.
“I spent a lot of my life away from Northern Ireland and I’m back here to stay, I won’t be going anywhere, this is my home, it will always be my home.”
Mr Beattie said he respected Mr Poots’ views, and acknowledged they were both unionists, but they were also very different.
“People say you’re a liberal unionist, but really I’m a unionist with liberal values, liberal values are about people.
“There are people out there – doctors, lawyers, policemen taxi drivers, the people who work in a shop, who come from all different backgrounds, who have all different religions, all different histories and ethnic backgrounds, sexualities, if they can all believe in Northern Ireland as a place where they want to live then it strengthens the Union,” he said.
“It’s that Union of people that I’m talking about, it’s a not a strapline just to keep people in line, I genuinely believe if people want Northern Ireland to work and want to get Northern Ireland working with me then we can strengthen the Union and promote the Union.”