Mike Nesbitt not excluding chance he may be First Minister
UUP chief takes issue with Arlene Foster saying Martin McGuinness could lead Stormont
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt speaks during the launch of his party’s Assembly election manifesto at the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast, April 14th, 2016. Mr Nesbitt accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of “arrogance” for portraying the battle to secure the next first ministerial role as a two-horse race. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire
Mr Nesbitt, when launching his party’s Northern Assembly elections manifesto in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast on Thursday, said that, at the very least, he hopes to return more than 16 Assembly members to Stormont.
In the last Assembly elections in 2011, the UUP under then leader Tom Elliott won 16 seats. However, over the past five years two left to form the ill-fated NI21 party, while David McNarry moved to become leader of the UK Independence Party in Northern Ireland.
Mr Nesbitt said the UUP had “momentum” entering this election, and was aiming to win more seats.
“That growth can’t be measured on the 13 MLAs who came off the [Stormont] hill, but it has to be on the 16 that went up the hill. So, growth on 16 is the target,” he said.
The UUP and Strangford MLA also took issue with First Minister Arlene Foster warning that if unionists did not vote for the DUP, the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister could end up as First Minister.
“We are fighting like any other party, we are fighting to win. I think there is a certain arrogance in other parties saying it is either A or B for First Minister,” said Mr Nesbitt.
“Who is to say that the Ulster Unionists with 33 good candidates and stated policies which are second to none, and a better vision than anybody else for the future of Northern Ireland, can’t come out on top?”
As the UUP is running 33 candidates in the North’s 18 six-seater constituencies, it may be difficult for Mr Nesbitt’s party to become the majority party in Northern Ireland, considering the DUP currently has 38 seats and is running 44 candidates.
His comments nonetheless reflected the confident and combative mood of Mr Nesbitt and his candidates at the manifesto launch.
The UUP leader said he detected a “different mood in the country” which he believed would benefit Ulster Unionist candidates.
“We have regained our appetite for elections. We believe in ourselves again,” he added.
The UUP pulled its single minister, Danny Kennedy, out of the Northern Executive following the controversy over the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast last summer, which PSNI chief constable George Hamilton blamed on IRA members.
Mr Nesbitt said this withdrawal addressed Sinn Féin’s “incredible denial” of the existence of the IRA.
He said at the manifesto launch the UUP had not laid down any precondition over Sinn Féin’s position on the IRA determining whether it would return to the Executive.
“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 UUP would enter into negotiations with the other parties after the election on May 5th to try to agree a workable programme of government.
If that was achieved, the UUP would take up whatever ministry or ministries it was entitled to but if there was no acceptable programme for government, the UUP would enter into opposition.
“Our decision on whether to go back into government is based on whether we think there is a progressive programme for government and there is a collective will around the table for those entitled to be in government to actually deliver the programme for government this time,” he said.
The UUP in its manifesto said while individual members can vote as they choose in the referendum on the European Union on June 23rd, “on balance Northern Ireland is better off remaining in the EU”.