Mike Nesbitt has denied that political opportunism motivated his calls for Arlene Foster to quit at the height of Stormont’s green energy scandal.
The UUP leader has faced questions over why his demand came in the wake of a media furore on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and not in the months before, when concerns about the scheme were being aired at an Assembly committee.
While the “cash for ash” crisis blew up in December following a BBC Spotlight documentary, media reports on the affair first emerged six months beforehand and the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by UUP MLA Robin Swann, had been investigating it since September.
Explaining the timing of his resignation call, Mr Nesbitt said the intensity of the RHI scandal in the weeks around Christmas got to the point where credibility in Stormont was on the line.
Mrs Foster steadfastly rejected demands from Mr Nesbitt and other political rivals to fall on her sword, insisting she had done nothing wrong.
“I absolutely reject the idea that there was any opportunism,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt said Mrs Foster’s reaction to the escalation of the RHI furore dropped the reputation of the devolved institutions from the “gutter into the sewer”.
“It’s got the whiff of cronyism and corruption about it, it’s definitely got incompetence, there’s definitely been arrogance,” he said of the scandal.
“There are parties up there who are prioritising their own interests over the concept of the common good and it is for that reason I felt, because she is one of our two leaders - as one of the first ministers - the only act of leadership that was worth a hill of beans was to say ‘I am prioritising starting the process of restoring public faith and the integrity of Stormont over my own career and I am out’.”
Mr Nesbitt said he viewed the upcoming snap election as a referendum on the RHI and others scandals he accuses the DUP of presiding over.
He said the RHI factor combined with the reduction of the Assembly from 108 MLAs to 90, made the March poll one of the hardest ever to predict.
The Strangford candidate said the UUP’s task in the campaign ahead was to convince “angry voters” to resist the temptation to stay at home.
Mr Nesbitt said the 45% of the electorate that did not vote last May could have a key role this time round.
“There’s no reason to assume that angry people won’t join those voting for change on March 2,” he said.
“That’s the opportunity for us and the challenge within that is to convince them they should channel their anger into a vote to change.”