Mike Nesbitt has said he has no regrets about pledging to give a second preference vote to the SDLP, insisting he will stand by his vision of unionists and nationalists working in partnership.
The Ulster Unionist leader rejected any suggestion he had scored a political own goal and said criticism of his stance would not deflect him from striving for a “better” Northern Ireland.
A number of Mr Nesbitt’s fellow UUP candidates have already made clear they will not follow his lead and will instead only support other pro-Union parties down the ballot paper in March’s snap Assembly poll.
As he launched the UUP’s election manifesto in Belfast, the party leader said he was “relaxed” that colleagues were taking a different position based on the electoral dynamics within their own constituencies, but he said he stood by his principles.
“What I am trying to achieve is a stretch for some people, it’s not going to be easy, and if it was we would have done it by now,” he said.
“But it’s 19 years since we made that commitment to a fresh start (in the Good Friday Agreement) involving reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust, offering mutual respect.
“Those are the principles that I believe in and it doesn’t surprise me that people are poking fun or putting question marks against my motivation and all the rest – that’s life, that’s politics.
“I am not deflected, I am determined. Northern Ireland deserves better.”
Accusing the DUP and Sinn Fein of engaging in “dog whistle politics” to polarise communities, he said it was time to “forget factions and sections” and create a government that was “fair and honest for everybody”.
Insisting he retained the trust of party colleagues, Mr Nesbitt said the politics of “domination” had not worked in Northern Ireland.
“You can have domination or you can have partnership – domination doesn’t work, partnership does. It is the only pathway to reconciliation, tolerance, trust and respect.”
Addressing an election event elsewhere in the city, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she found it “strange” that Mr Nesbitt “would rather have members from a nationalist community returned to Stormont as opposed to members of the unionist community”.
“But of course he has to answer for himself,” she added. “My own party, we will be transferring to other unionists. It doesn’t surprise me that members of his own party are coming out and saying something different to what he has said because they know that they may in some cases need the transfers from other unionists and won’t be cutting off their noses just to spite their faces.”
The controversy first flared on Sunday when the UUP leader said that, after his own party, he would vote for the SDLP ahead of other unionist candidates.
However, Mr Nesbitt did not go as far to say he would advise other UUP supporters to adopt the same approach. The UUP and SDLP have positioned themselves as an alternative partnership government at Stormont.