Decorated war veteran seen as likely favourite for UUP leadership

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By David Young, PA

An ex-Royal Navy commander could be succeeded by a decorated Army veteran if speculation around the next UUP leader proves correct.

Doug Beattie is seen by many within the party as the likely successor to Steve Aiken.

The Upper Bann MLA was viewed as a serious leadership contender back in 2019 when the last vacancy arose but he ultimately chose not to stand, leaving Mr Aiken with a clear path to the job.

A capable media performer, Mr Beattie, 56, is viewed as a moderate and progressive and a UUP under his leadership would be likely to focus on reclaiming some of the ground lost to the centrist Alliance Party in recent elections.

Awarded a Military Cross for bravery during a 34-year career as a British Army soldier, Mr Beattie’s unionist credentials would also be hard for political rivals to challenge.

There is not a host of obvious other contenders to succeed Mr Aiken but former fireman Robbie Butler is one name that has been mentioned.

The party’s chief whip was elected to the Assembly in 2016 as a representative for the Lagan Valley constituency.

The 49-year-old is a vocal campaigner on mental health issues and is also the party’s spokesman on education.

If not in the running this time round, Mr Butler is certainly seen by some within the party as a leader for the future.

It might also be a contest too soon for up and coming East Antrim MLA John Stewart – a politician who is thought to harbour leadership ambitions.

The UUP’s 10-strong Assembly team includes two former leaders in Robin Swann and Mike Nesbitt.

Stormont Health Minister Mr Swann already has his hands full steering Northern Ireland through the Covid-19 pandemic, and Mr Nesbitt was left bruised after voters rejected his drive to push the party towards the centre ground in the 2017 Assembly election.

It remains to be seen whether either man would wish to seek the leadership again.

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