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UUP's Nesbitt not for turning after backlash over SDLP vote plan

By Noel McAdam

Mike Nesbitt has defended the signalling of his intention to give his second preference vote to the SDLP.

The Ulster Unionist leader also denied putting pressure on his party's other candidates to reveal their voting intentions.

Launching the UUP's manifesto yesterday, Mr Nesbitt said his decision "wasn't a mistake".

"I don't think there is an issue here. What I am trying to achieve is a stretch for some people, it's not going to be easy, and if it was we would have done it by now," he said.

"But it's 19 years since we made that commitment to a fresh start (in the Good Friday Agreement) involving reconciliation, tolerance, mutual trust, offering mutual respect. Those are the principles that I believe in, and it doesn't surprise me that people are poking fun or putting question marks against my motivation and all the rest - that's life, that's politics. I am not deflected, I am determined. Northern Ireland deserves better."

The Strangford candidate said he had been looking beyond the March 2 poll and towards Northern Ireland starting its second centenary when he disclosed he will vote for SDLP candidate Seamas de Faoite ahead of DUP standard-bearer Robin Newton in East Belfast.

"How hypocritical would it be for me to vote when I have been so critical of Robin Newton as Speaker, and I don't withdraw one word of it," he said.

Mr Newton had driven a "coach and horses" through the joint nature of the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister when he allowed his party leader Arlene Foster to make a statement in the Assembly on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) when Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had withdrawn his permission, he said.

He also cited Mr Newton's reported links to the controversial Charter NI charity. Mr Newton has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr Nesbitt said the Assembly election should be a "referendum" on the DUP's handling of the 'cash for ash' scandal and its last 10 years of leadership in partnership with Sinn Fein.

"This is about incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the strong whiff of corruption," he added.

The UUP chief said the "ultimate obscenity" of the current political crisis, with inter-party negotiations due to follow the election, was that the victims of historical institutional abuse -some of them waiting decades for the recent report by Sir Anthony Hart - now found that the Executive Office at Stormont, which could deal with their cases, is effectively shut.

As a former Victims Commissioner, he said he had expected the State to protect victims and survivors of the Troubles, "but too often the opposite happened".

Mr Nesbitt said he did not agree with those who believe the election was a foregone conclusion, as it is the first in which people have an opportunity to vote parties which had been in the Opposition - UUP, SDLP and Alliance - into government.

"Northern Ireland has never had the opportunity to elect a credible alternative. After Ulster Unionist, I urge voters to support the candidate they trust will do the right thing by their local community, their constituency and this country," he added.

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