Mike Nesbitt has appeared to rule out ever re-entering the Stormont Executive until either the IRA is disbanded or Sinn Fein ends its “denial” about the IRA’s existence.
In an interview with the News Letter ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party’s annual conference on Saturday, the UUP leader said that any Executive in which Sinn Fein sits, but continues to deny the IRA’s existence, would be “built on a lie”.
Mr Nesbitt also accused Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of “lying” when he said that the IRA no longer existed.
When asked to outline the circumstances under which he would lead the UUP back into the Executive, Mr Nesbitt said that his decision to leave had been based on both the allegation that IRA members were involved in murder and on Sinn Fein’s denial of the chief constable’s assessment that the IRA still exists.
“You cannot have stable politics if you have a party of government saying that the chief constable is wrong about such a fundamental issue,” he said.
“That was a principled stand, it was a clear stand and an understandable stand unlike the kind of yo-yo DUP reaction to it.”
He said that to re-enter the Executive there would have to be a resolution of the issues being discussed at the Stormont talks. He said that after the next election – where the UUP will field enough candidates to take the first minister’s job if it attracts sufficient support – the party will go into negotiations on a programme for government in the days before ministries are allocated.
“At the end of that, we make a decision and it will be based on two key questions: Do we think the programme for government is positive and progressive for all the people – not just unionism – and secondly, over that period of negotiation do we sense that for once there really is a collective political will to deliver?
“If our answers are yes and yes, I would have thought we will go back in ...”
However, when asked if he would refuse to go back to the Executive in the event that Sinn Fein still denies the existence of the IRA, he said: “I’ m saying that we have to fix that. I don’t see how the Executive can continue when you have that level of distrust because what you’re doing politically is built on a lie and you can’t have a solid foundation ...”
Mr Nesbitt said that he believed the party would at times take a tough stance – essentially moving it to the DUP’s right – but on other issues would be more “progressive” and to the left of the DUP.
He argued that Sinn Fein’s current stance is untenable and undermines the trust necessary for good government.
“We are now told that the Army Council still exists and the difficulty is this: How can we fully respect Sinn Fein’s mandate – which we want to do – if we’re being told that to some extent that is then being used and directed by the nameless, faceless people who previously were responsible for directing the most lethal terrorist force on planet earth? That’s not democracy as I know it.”
In an interview with News Letter columnist Alex Kane last week, Mr Nesbitt said that he could “do a better job with Sinn Fein” than Peter Robinson has managed over recent years.
And he revealed that he has had “private conversations” about the issue with Martin McGuinness.
When asked if he could understand why some UUP members may be uneasy at the idea of such conversations, given the revelations about the IRA, Mr Nesbitt said: “I had been speaking to him previously as part of an attempt to fix what is an entirely dysfunctional set of devolved institutions.
“I think that is my duty. It is also my duty, and incumbent on all in political leadership, to say to all paramilitaries – loyalist and republican – ‘you’ve had 17 years to come on board an inclusive, purely political peaceful process. This is the line in the sand – if you are coming on board, we will help you ... you have energy and commitment; if we can direct that positively, and you’re prepared to do it, we’ll do it.
“If however, you’re going to go dark, into community control, into organised crime and all the rest, then you are self-excluding and there have to be consequences.
“I would be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with every other political leader and make that point and say ‘for the first time ever, there is a collective political will to do this’.
“But 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.”
He said that Sinn Fein was “themselves alone” as there is no other organisation in the world which believes that the IRA does not exist.
Sinn Fein did not respond to Mr Nesbitt’s comments.