THE decision of Health Minister Robin Swann to step down from his Executive position as soon as the Westminster election is called later this year is just one of a couple of worrying indicators of the sorry state of the UUP – and therefore of unionism more widely.

Mr Swann is hailed as the North’s most popular politician and rightly won kudos for the empathetic and determined way he dealt with the pressing issues facing him in what’s a brutally demanding role. For him to have emerged from the unprecedented demands of the Covid crisis with his reputation intact would have been achievement enough, but in fact he came through the emergency with his reputation enhanced and carrying an enormous amount of goodwill from people for the way he negotiated the biggest challenge ever to have faced a Stormont Health Minister.

His return to the department after two years of a DUP boycott was one of the more welcome and steadying pieces of news in what was a difficult time politically. Which is why his preference for devoting his considerable energy and talent to winning the South Antrim seat is in equal parts a disappointment and a surprise.

The Health portfolio is one which is uniquely in need of an assured and experienced hand – and there’s no-one within the UUP who fits that bill as well as the outgoing incumbent. It’s almost certain that Mike Nesbitt will take over the brief when Minister Swann calls it a day and while there’s every reason to suppose that he may in time prove a capable replacement, the disruption and confusion thrown up by this move is the last thing the Executive needs so short a time into its latest iteration. Mr Swann’s claim that, if elected, he will bring “a Northern Ireland perspective” to health matters when they arise in Westminster is risible, quite frankly. Given that Health is a devolved matter, and given the amount of work needed to be done here on waiting lists and clinical outcomes, that makes zero sense.

As if that wasn’t trouble enough, party leader Doug Beattie finds himself saddled with his former British army colleague Tim Collins, whose interview with the News Letter in recent days would be more at home in a faded sepia clipping from a 1950s London Times editorial. So toe-curlingly out-of-touch and lacking in the most basic facts was it that Mr Beattie felt compelled to do the media rounds to repair the damage. His clean-up operation was almost as shambolic as the offending newspaper piece, with Mr Beattie sharing his analysis that Alliance’s Stephen Farry is “a better qualified candidate” for the North Down seat than Mr Collins.

The fog of internal war has descended.

The hopes of many are pinned on the UUP finally providing the credible, relatively progressive unionist alternative that has been promised by Mr Beattie to unionists but never delivered. That’s hard enough to do in a party that’s organised and focused; in a party this riven by uncertainty and confusion, it’s well-nigh impossible.