Unionism must return to its founding values and approach powersharing with nationalists as beneficial not a necessary evil, Mike Nesbitt has said.
Accusing the DUP of pursing a factionalist agenda at Stormont, the UUP leader said he wanted to instead lead a “coalition of the willing”.
Ruling out ever returning to the Stormont Executive as a junior partner, Mr Nesbitt set out his vision of a co-operative government founded on trust and mutual respect between unionism and nationalism.
“If you don’t build trust with the people you are working with you have no foundation,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt said a partnership approach should be the hallmark of “second century unionism”, as Northern Ireland looked toward its centenary.
He claimed his main unionist rivals, the DUP, had reneged on principles espoused by one of the Province’s founding fathers Sir Edward Carson.
He criticised controversial comments DUP members have made about Sinn Fein, including former health minister Edwin Poots’ reference to his party holding their noses while working with republicans.
Mr Nesbitt said: “What I want to see for unionism in the second century is a return to values.
“If you go back to Carson, in 1920 as this country was being developed, Carson stood up in the Commons and said ‘you’ll only succeed if there are no factions, no sections’.
“You’ll only succeed if you have got good government, fair government and honest government for all the people.
“And if we don’t do that, that is the existential threat to Northern Ireland – if unionism fails to live up to the values that were established nearly 100 years ago by Edward Carson.
“And I am not seeing those values over the last 10 years in the Northern Ireland Executive.”
He added: “It’s not just a cut and paste from a document that says ‘no factions, no sections’, we have to do this – a coalition of the willing, a proper partnership with nationalism for the benefit of all our people.
“We believe we can do better because we want to be partners in government, and at least the DUP clearly do not.”
Mr Nesbitt said the need to reach out to nationalists was particularly acute in regard to Brexit, claiming the referendum result had challenged a contentment he said many had developed around Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.
One of Martin McGuinness’s parting shots to the DUP as he quit front-line politics was a claim they had not reciprocated his gestures of reconciliation.
The UUP leader insisted he would not be found wanting in that regard.
“It’s not like I am one of these Protestant unionists who doesn’t meet a Catholic until they are 23 years of age or going to university or anything like that,” he said.
“I have no difficulty with nationalists, particularly nationalists who want Northern Ireland to work. That’s one of the things I admire about (SDLP leader) Colum Eastwood.
“He would say what I say – he wants to make Northern Ireland work, measured by the prosperity of our people in terms of wealth and health, in terms of infrastructure and all the rest.
“Now his motivation is different – he wants us to be more attractive for a future united Ireland; I want us to be attractive as part of the UK, but that’s no inhibitor to working together to make Northern Ireland work.”