Mike Nesbitt came under fire from rivals on two fronts on Friday night after he dropped any preconditions about the IRA before returning to the Executive and two UUP candidates declined to tell voters to transfer to other unionists.
On Thursday, the Ulster Unionist leader made clear that his only preconditions for ending the UUP’s period in exile related to the programme for government and the commitment of the parties to implement it, removing any need for action from Sinn Fein or the IRA before the UUP returns to the Executive table.
When Mr Nesbitt led his party out of the Executive last August, he said the decision was “based solely” on the PSNI’s belief that IRA members murdered Kevin McGuigan.
Announcing the walkout at that time, he was very clear: “We are saying as a matter of principle that we are not prepared to sit at that Executive table when the IRA exists with a command structure at a senior level, are committing murder on the streets of our capital city and the best that Sinn Fein can do is trot out this tired old rhetoric that it wasn’t them ...”
He went on to say: “We will not share power with Sinn Fein while the IRA are murdering ...and they are denying it.”
TUV Lagan Valley candidate Lyle Rea highlighted that the McGuigan murder “doesn’t merit a mention” in the UUP manifesto and the IRA is only referenced in the section of the manifesto dealing with the past.
He said: “The UUP don’t even demand that Sinn Fein so much as publicly admit that the IRA exists...one is entitled to ask where the UUP’s principles are now. Are the principles outlined in their manifesto equally expendable?”
And Ukip leader David McNarry accused the party of “retreating and sneaking back into an Executive that they made so much fuss over walking out of”.
Meanwhile, after UUP candidate Doug Beattie said that he would “rather stick knitting needles in my eyes than vote DUP” and fellow candidate Lesley Carroll also declined to urge her voters to transfer to other unionists, the DUP demanded that Mr Nesbitt clarify the party’s policy.
Reminding the UUP of its pact with the DUP last year, Nigel Dodds said that his party was urging voters to transfer to other unionists.
He said: “What is the Ulster Unionist advice in respect of supporting other unionists down the ballot paper? The UUP leader needs to make a clear statement on the issue.”
A UUP spokesman responded: “Some members of the DUP need to grow a thicker skin. There’s always hurly-burly in politics, especially at election time and for the DUP to now try and lecture the Ulster Unionist Party on cooperating with other unionists is a bit rich to say the least.
“We want as many people as possible to come out on May 5 to vote for the Ulster Unionist Party candidates in their area and then vote for candidates and parties whose views and policies most closely reflect their own. If people decide that they don’t want to vote for the DUP, that is a matter for them.”
He added: “Everybody knows that there are DUP voters who will never vote Ulster Unionist and vice-versa.”