UUP leader Mike Nesbitt stonewalls over re-entry to Executive

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt

The leader of the UUP has refused to answer questions about why the party is considering re-entering government despite the continued existence of the PIRA.

Mike Nesbitt – a former veteran journalist – cut short an interview with the News Letter on Tuesday night because he objected to the line of questioning which concerned a possible return to the Executive.

It came the same day that detectives held a press conference about the murder of Dan Murray on Monday – one of four shootings to have taken place in republican-dominated parts of Belfast since Friday.

It is not known at this stage who was responsible for this latest killing.

Mr Nesbitt dramatically withdrew his party from the Executive on August 26 last year after the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan, with police announcing that they suspected current members of the PIRA of being involved.

Sinn Fein then issued repeated denials that the PIRA is still in existence.

But in a high-profile speech at Stormont Mr Nesbitt declared that they were no longer prepared to sit with Sinn Fein in government, saying the party’s denial of the PIRA “totally lacks credibility”, and that the party had “shattered trust”.

Police on Tuesday reaffirmed that, over six months on, there was no change in their assessment that PIRA structures do still exist.

See timeline of the whole controversy here.

The PIRA-linked killing of Kevin McGuigan on August 12 last year, and the massive political uproar which followed, led to an intelligence review about the status of all supposedly defunct paramilitary groups in the Province.

This review, led by the police and MI5, concluded on October 19 (see a copy of the document here).

It found that PIRA command structures do indeed still exist, that the group has access to some weaponry, and that – while the organisation is now focused on politics – some individual PIRA members are still involved in violence.

Former UUP leader Tom Elliott said this week that a key deciding factor in whether or not they go back into government would be a meeting with the chief constable about the involvement of so-called “mainstream republicans” in ongoing violence.

After that meeting on Tuesday, the PSNI issued a statement which said that last October’s intelligence report remains accurate.

Mike Nesbitt then issued his own statement which said the ongoing existence of the PIRA was “not surprising, but disappointing”.

Nonetheless, he kept open the option of a return to government.

His statement went on to say: “The chief constable’s assessment does not make re-entry to the Executive any more attractive, but we have two other tests regarding the Programme for Government to which we expect to have answers in a few short days.”

He did not state what these tests were.

The News Letter attempted to set up an interview by phone with Mr Nesbitt.

After a couple of hours, the party said Mr Nesbitt was available for a call.

However, when Mr Nesbitt was asked why the UUP is considering re-entering the Executive given that there is no change in the security assessment, he refused to proceed any further with the interview.

The only thing he would say was: “Your line of questioning is based on false logic.”

He then cut off the call.

Last year he had been extremely clear that leaving the Executive had been “a matter of principle”, resting on the existence of the PIRA, plus Sinn Fein’s denials (such as this much-derided example, where Bobby Storey compared the paramilitary group to a butterfly).

But when speaking to the News Letter last month he indicated that the way may still be clear to return to the Executive anyway, stating he had “no red lines” concerning the IRA.