Arlene Foster launches scathing attack on Nesbitt and UUP and vows to secure best Brexit deal for Northern Ireland
Exclusive: First Minister Foster's Brexit vow as she mounts a DUP recruitment drive and slates the party's unionist opponents
Arlene Foster has thrown down the gauntlet to her unionist rivals, branding the UUP's Mike Nesbitt as a leader who doesn't understand his own voters - and saying that the TUV's Jim Allister is heading towards retirement.
Speaking in north Antrim, the DUP leader announced that her party was about to launch a recruitment drive, offering "boundless opportunities" to new members. "Successful parties look for converts - failed parties look for heretics," she declared.
Mrs Foster stressed that she had absolutely no regrets about Brexit, and wholeheartedly believed the DUP had been right to support the Leave campaign.
She said she was working closely behind-the-scenes with Brexit Secretary David Davis to secure the best possible deal for Northern Ireland.
In a fiery address to the North Antrim Young Democrats in Kells on Saturday night, Mrs Foster rounded on the performance of her unionist rivals and predicted they were leading their parties nowhere.
She said the DUP had emerged stronger than ever from May's Assembly election. "We held 38 seats - the same number as 2011. The UUP were reduced to their worst election result in their history. The TUV were humiliated and are still a one-man band with Jim Allister heading towards retirement.
"No Ukip MLAs were elected - and the PUP got their answer from the unionist loyalist people of Ulster," she stated. Mrs Foster claimed that Mr Nesbitt was out of his depth politically, with many of his party's members preparing to jump ship.
"There is a widespread belief gathering pace, particularly in the last number of months, that the UUP has lost its way," she said. "Many former Ulster Unionist voters and current Ulster Unionist members have said to me that their leader has no understanding of the regular UUP voter.
"They have told me of their concern that he has no consistency of approach, and that the UUP does not seem to have any core beliefs. For the first time in recent history, there is now only one mainstream unionist party.
"A significant number of UUP members have approached me in the last few months wanting to join with us. Some already have, and others will do so in the very near future. They will be made most welcome."
Mrs Foster described the Opposition at Stormont as "a shambles and totally divided". But she added: "We passed legislation and supported the right of parties to opt out of government.
"The system of government is not of our choosing but we are in government to deliver for Northern Ireland and we have no fear of those who were defeated at the ballot box and who are now in Opposition as a result.
"There are many areas where we can forge agreement in terms of what is best for Northern Ireland and in these areas we will do so."
Mrs Foster claimed her party wasn't just the largest one in Northern Ireland, but that it also boasted the greatest proportion of younger people at a senior level.
"The DUP probably has by far the youngest ministerial team of any party in UK. Our Education Minister, Peter Weir, is the oldest at 47," she said.
"Contrast that with some other parties and it is easy to see why we can say with confidence that we are the future. While the Ulster Unionist Party ignored youth, the DUP encouraged it."
Appealing to young unionists to join the DUP, she said she didn't believe in "promotion on the basis of time served but on the basis of talent". She promised that young people would advance in the party much quicker than they might think.
"There are plenty of role models - not just in the Executive but also in Parliament and in the Assembly party. Gavin Robinson is now an MP, while Christopher Stalford, Emma Pengelly, Alastair Ross, Paul Givan, Simon Hamilton, Gary Middleton, Joanne Bunting, Carla Lockhart and Philip Logan are all under 40," she said.
Mrs Foster insisted the DUP had taken the "right position" on Brexit, and that leaving the EU was "in the best interests of the UK in the long-term".
She commented that following the EU referendum result "some have behaved as if the world was coming to an immediate end. Their predictions have been shown to be foolish".
The DUP leader said it was now important to work collectively to secure the best deal possible. "I make no apologies for saying that I will work to secure the best exit deal for Northern Ireland and I will work alongside other parties, despite our differences on the referendum outcome, to get that deal for our people," she declared.
"I have been working with David Davis, Liam Fox and with the Prime Minister and we intend to play a key role in negotiations."
Mrs Foster said that May's Assembly election produced the lowest nationalist share of the vote since 1993, with the DUP widening its lead over Sinn Fein in seats at Stormont, putting "unionism in its strongest position in a generation".
She continued: "Unionists won the war. We are now starting to win the peace. We should prepare not just for the next five years but the next 50 years. If we do so, we can pass an even stronger Union to the next generation than we inherited."