JOHN McCallister has said that if his party does not make clear that it is entirely different to the DUP it will be “the kiss of death”.
The South Down MLA, who announced that he was standing in an article for Tuesday’s News Letter, said that any suggestion of an arrangement with the DUP which may give the UUP several more Assembly seats would ultimately kill the party.
And the Rathfriland MLA, who at 40 is the youngest of the candidates, repeated his promise to immediately leave the Stormont Executive to enter opposition if he is elected leader.
“Opposition is the only way I believe we can properly rebuild and move unionism away from this siege mentality where every election is a border poll. We need to enter a new era of confidence where we know that the border is secure,” he told the News Letter.
Mr McCallister said in a number of areas he wanted to see the UUP freed from the constraints of being in the Executive so that it could challenge other ministers’ decisions.
He said: “We need to be speaking out about the deadlock we are stuck with in education, the mess in health and social services and I have huge ideas around how we can take care of the elderly.
“Those are the things that I want to highlight as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and as the leader of the opposition.”
On Thursday, UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt said he did not support leaving the Executive for opposition and said that the UUP was in the business of getting power, not giving it up.
But Mr McCallister said: “What power? Read the News Letter a few days ago when you quoted the Queen’s University poll – if this power was there and we were so influential, making a big impact why would people be saying that we are the least influential party?
“Every party at times needs to be in opposition to reconnect and refocus its energy on what is important for the people.
“It can’t be easy being one Ulster Unionist minister round an Executive table of 15 ministers but we have to be honest about what we’ve achieved in the Executive.
“Yes, there are things we’ve delivered such as stopping car parking charges in some towns but we’ve also agreed to spend hundreds of millions building a road about which our leader has expressed serious concerns and although we’ve voted against a council model which we oppose – legislated for by a minister who also opposes it – it will happen anyway.
“In those circumstances, it’s hard to tell people that we are achieving our agenda.”
Mr McCallister also reiterated his opposition to the UUP making any sort of deal with the DUP.
The South Down MLA said that he believed the “vast majority” of the UUP’s membership was opposed to moving the party closer to its larger unionist rival.
“It would not be good for politics or for Northern Ireland and it would certainly not be good for this party.
“Look at what has happened when we’ve tried unionist unity – in Fermanagh and South Tyrone the unionist vote dropped by seven per cent and the nationalist vote went up by 17 per cent.
“Tom Elliott gave me those figures and you only have to look at the outcome of the Hatfield House, the Orange Order-brokered talks and the North Belfast deal Fred Cobain struck with the DUP to realise that every time this harms us.
“If you have unionist unity you inevitably move to nationalist unity and effectively a one-party state with an orange and green wing.
“What choice is there for voters there? Them and us are guaranteed Executive seats, them and us are guaranteed Executive seats – it’s bad for democracy and bad for Northern Ireland.”
And, in a broadside at the DUP, Mr McCallister added: “Look at them in Upper Bann, look at them in council chambers across the Province and look at them in the Assembly – they are not our friends and if we go down that route it will be the kiss of death for this party.”