Mike Nesbitt intends opening discussions with other parties on the formation of an opposition at Stormont.
At his party conference today, the UUP leader is set to launch a raft of policies aimed at carving out a distinctive new identity for his party.
One new departure is promoting more job opportunities for former loyalist and republican prisoners. “We made commitments to former prisoners under the Belfast Agreement which are still unfulfilled,” he said.
“I don’t think it is acceptable that, having made that commitment 14 years ago, that we don’t deliver on it. So the UUP would do what is a relatively difficult thing and engage with them.”
The unionist leader is interested in eventually taking his party into opposition, but only if there are proper ground rules and funding for that to happen. He has an open mind on how that might be achieved,provided it doesn’t undermine power-sharing.
“The only thing we would be really prescriptive about is that you would have to have a cross-community Government,” he said.
“If you had Sinn Fein and the DUP as Government would we, the SDLP and Alliance get together and form an opposition? Or would each of us do our own thing? That needs to be discussed.”
The once mighty UUP is now at its lowest ebb electorally, with no MPs in Westminster and only one Stormont minister.
Mr Nesbitt acknowledges that his speech today will be a crucial moment in his attempts to get it back on course.
“We need to stand alone,” he said. “We have a history of trying to form associations...
“If we are going to revive our fortunes it is not going to be with a quick fix or a merger but by working hard on the ground, getting embedded in the communities,” he said, appearing to rule out unionist unity.
Since taking office in March Mr Nesbitt has concentrated on tightening up the party’s structures and discipline.
He wants to project the UUP as “a progressive pro-Union party”, and has said: “It is long overdue for us to say ‘We are not a Protestant party... we are a political party who believe in the union.”
Mike Nesbitt on...
- Attracting votes: “There is a block of people who are not voting because they have nobody to vote for. By offering a liberal alternative we can tap into that vote.”
- The big parties: “Sinn Fein and the DUP spend more time trying to justify the current system than recognising that the best thing would be to change the system. I want to totally focus on delivery.”
- The DUP: A lot of people say the DUP were on our ground; that affirms to me that we were right.
- The violence associated with Orange marches: “It is wrong legally, morally and tactically.”