If we have to form an Opposition we will, says UUP's Mike Nesbitt
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has denied there is any uncertainty at the heart of his party's election campaign about potentially forming an Assembly Opposition.
Launching the UUP manifesto yesterday, Mr Nesbitt made clear the preference was to rejoin the Stormont Executive - which the party pulled out of more than six months ago - but might end up going into Opposition reluctantly.
It will not make a decision until well after the May 5 poll, as there are expected to be two weeks of negotiations between the main parties to agree a new Programme for Government (PfG).
Mr Nesbitt reaffirmed that the UUP verdict will be based on its assessment of how "progressive" the PfG is, and its sense of the other parties' willingness to implement it.
He told the event in east Belfast it was "regrettable" that it appeared the report of the three-person panel set up to examine IRA and other paramilitary activity would not be available in time for the post-election multi-party talks.
When the UUP withdrew its sole Executive minister Danny Kennedy last autumn Mr Nesbitt argued Sinn Fein's stance that the IRA "did not exist" had undermined trust to such a degree his party could no longer share power with republicans.
But yesterday he stressed Sinn Fein's position on the IRA was not a precondition for the Ulster Unionists deciding to return to government.
"I didn't put (us) 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. And he insisted: "There is no uncertainty over our plans. It is not being raised on the doorsteps. Our message is simple and easily understood."
The UUP leader stressed that success in the election would mean at least regaining the three Assembly seats the party lost since the last election in 2011.
It has set its sights on winning back a second seat in Strangford - where former UUP man David McNarry is now regional leader of Ukip - as well as Lagan Valley and South Down, after Basil McCrea and John McCallister formed the ill-fated NI21.
Mr McNarry and Mr McCrea are not running in the election.
Beyond those targets the UUP believes it stands a reasonable chance of gains in East and South Antrim.
The party is fielding a total of 33 candidates across the 18 constituences, with more than two-thirds of them standing for election for the first time.
"The UUP is refreshed. It has taken time, but we have rebuilt ourselves and we enter these elections ready and eager to lead again," Mr Nesbitt told the party faithful.
"There is a different mood in the country. We have regained our appetite for elections. We believe in ourselves again.
"We have found new credibility with the electorate and these are feeding off each other in a virtuous circle, generating the gold dust of elected politics - momentum.
"We have momentum."
Mr Nesbitt also accused the two main Stormont parties - DUP and Sinn Fein - of "arrogance" in their focus on the prospect of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.
"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?" he asked.