Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has predicted his party could top the polls at the Assembly election.
Making the claim as he launched the UUP’s manifesto, Mr Nesbitt accused the DUP and Sinn Fein of “arrogance” for portraying the battle to secure the First Minister’s seat as a two-horse race.
After the DUP emerged as the largest party in 2011 with 38 seats and the UUP came third on 16, a huge electoral turnaround would be required for Mr Nesbitt to emerge victorious in May, particularly as the party is only fielding 33 candidates.
But the claim was in tune with a manifesto launch in Belfast that proclaimed the UUP as a reinvigorated force.
“We are fighting like any other party, we are fighting to win,” said Mr Nesbitt.
“I think there is a certain arrogance in other parties saying it is either A or B for First Minister. Who is to say that the Ulster Unionists with 33 great candidates and stated policies which are second to none, and a better vision than anybody else on the future of Northern Ireland, can’t come out top?”
Mr Nesbitt said his party had regained its “appetite for elections”.
“We believe in ourselves again,” he told party faithful at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast.
“We have new-found credibility with the public and these two feed off each other in a virtuous circle, generating the gold dust of elected politics - momentum.”
Accusing the DUP and Sinn Fein of mismanaging the power-sharing administration for nine years, he asked: “Does anyone really want more of the same? Another five years of failure?”
The UUP walked out of the executive last autumn amid a crisis sparked by a murder linked to members of the supposedly defunct Provisional IRA.
At the time, Mr Nesbitt claimed Sinn Fein’s insistence that the IRA did not exist had undermined trust in the republican party to such a degree that the UUP could no longer share power with its representatives.
At the manifesto launch on Thursday, the UUP leader said Sinn Fein’s position on the IRA was not a precondition for his party returning to government.
“I didn’t put ourselves on a hook, I was very careful not to say there’s an ultimatum or a precondition for us to go back in,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt said the decision to enter the executive would be based on whether a “progressive” programme for government could be negotiated between the main parties after the election.
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.”