Setting out a substantially different position to that which he articulated when he led the UUP out of the Executive last August, Mr Nesbitt made clear that he has no preconditions relating to the IRA before re-entering the Executive.
Just six months after mocking the DUP for going back into government with a Sinn Fein which according to the security services is still heavily linked to an armed IRA, Mr Nesbitt’s language at the launch of the UUP manifesto was very different.
Instead, Mr Nesbitt set out preconditions which are easier to meet and do not relate to paramilitaries.
When Mr Nesbitt led his party out of the Executive, he said that the decision was “based solely” on the PSNI’s assessment that members of the IRA had acted in conjunction with dissident republicans and others to murder Kevin McGuigan in Belfast.
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Announcing the UUP decision at that time, Mr Nesbitt 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 on the streets of Belfast and they are denying it.”
But, when asked on Thursday if it was right to say that he did not have any red lines relating to the IRA before returning to the Executive, Mr Nesbitt told the News Letter: “We have no red lines and I was careful not to hang us on a hook like ‘no guns, no government’. We’ve learnt that lesson.
“What we want to see is a progressive programme for government and a commitment of all those in government that they’re actually going to deliver it this time, rather than promise £80 million of a Social Investment Fund and spend £1.5 million.
“It would have been better if the panel looking at how to get rid of paramilitaries was reporting before May 5 – not only for our benefit, but for the benefit of the voter.
“Clearly, that’s not going to happen so we will wait and see what they say, but I have to say that I like their thinking in terms of the engagement we’ve had with them.”
When asked if he needed to hear anything from Gerry Adams before he goes back into government, Mr Nesbitt said: “No. We will not allow Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness or Sinn Fein to dictate what we do with our mandate. We will make a decision on that ourselves.”
Last October at the Ulster Unionist conference, Mr Nesbitt received a rousing reception when he said: “Others do what others do. If a unionist party reads a report that says (1) The IRA still exists (2) It has access to weapons (3) It is still run by the Army Council and (4) the Army Council oversees Sinn Féin … and then that unionist party concludes: ‘That’s alright then, we’re back into government’ ... well, fine.
“The cat can lap it up like a bowl of very attractive double cream, but this canary is warning there is something toxic in the air.”
In the same speech, he said: “We will not be standing shoulder to shoulder against paramilitarism with a political party that insists the IRA no longer exists. It looks like the DUP will. What a pity they won’t stand strong with us. But we will not be deflected. It’s not the first time we have had to do the difficult thing on our own.”
Earlier that month, in an interview with News Letter columnist Alex Kane, Mr Nesbitt had said: “I’m not going to stand shoulder to shoulder with Martin McGuinness when he is lying; when he is in denial about the existence of the IRA in 2015.”
Last November, Mr Nesbitt referred to the recently published Government report which said that the IRA exists, that it still has access to weapons and that IRA members believe that the Army Council controls Sinn Fein. He said: “Unless Sinn Fein and the DUP address that reality, it renders any pledges and statements hollow and the IRA Army Council will be allowed to continue to exist.”
Yesterday, Mr Nesbitt told the News Letter that if the UUP does return to the Executive and is not the biggest Stormont party then it would take the education department. However, it is unlikely to be able to pick education if it remains as the third largest party, as it has always been picked by one of the top two parties.
Mr Nesbitt also declined to give details of the reasons behind the resignation of North Down councillor Daniel Allen. On Monday the party announced that Mr Allen, who had been one of three candidates in North Down, had left because the party could not “accommodate his demands”.
Yesterday Mr Nesbitt said: “We would have been happy to have had Daniel as a candidate but the staff worked with him and couldn’t satisfy his demands. He has subsequently decided to resign. That’s that.” When asked what demands had been made, he said: “It’s internal stuff, so we don’t wash dirty linen in public.”
The DUP’s campaign has placed heavy focus on its new leader Arlene Foster. In an apparent dig at this tactic, Mr Nesbitt said: “Having lived through the era of Ian Paisley’s party, we do not want to return to the cult of the individual.”
Later, as he announced the UUP’s candidates, he told supporters: “These are not just Mike Nesbitt’s candidates, these are your candidates.”