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Ulster Unionist chief Mike Nesbitt: I'll go to Sinn Fein ard fheis and sell Union to republicans

By Noel McAdam

New Ulster Unionist chief Mike Nesbitt has signalled he wants to make history as the first leader of his party to attend a Sinn Fein ard fheis — but he has yet to formally approach the republican party.

Just days into office, the UUP chief signalled he intends to attend the annual conferences of the main Irish parties including Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Labour Party.

And while also considering going to Sinn Fein’s conference, he indicated it may not happen in time for their next ard fheis, which is due to take place in Killarney next month.

“We should be going to all the conferences of the main parties, not just the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats,” Mr Nesbitt told the Belfast Telegraph.

He intends to set up a commission to examine how to advance the benefits of the Union, and is asking the man he defeated to win the leadership — John McCallister — to head it up.

The commission, which is to take evidence from key figures outside the party, will also look at issues arising in the next phase for the devolved administration at Stormont.

“I would very much like to attend the conferences of the main parties in the South, not just Fine Gael but Fianna Fail and Irish Labour,” Mr Nesbitt added.

“There has never been a better time to promote the cultural and economic benefits of remaining as part of the United Kingdom.”

South Down MLA McCallister and another former leadership challenger, Basil McCrea, have already attended Sinn Fein gatherings in recent months.

And former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie crossed the political divide by attending an Ulster Unionist annual conference several years ago.

Asked whether he would include Sinn Fein on Tuesday, Mr Nesbitt said: “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.”

A Sinn Fein spokesman said: “If Mike Nesbitt wants to make an approach I am quite sure it would be looked at by our ard comhairle (executive).”

In a virtual ‘as you were’ announcement of his team on Tuesday, it was confirmed Mr McCallister will remain as deputy leader and Danny Kennedy, who did not put his name forward for the leadership contest, is to stay on as the party’s sole Executive minister, in charge of regional development.

But there is speculation Mr Kennedy could be replaced by South Antrim MLA Danny Kinahan — perhaps as early as this autumn, when the mechanism for appointing ministers, the D’Hondt procedure, is due to be rerun in the Assembly.

Mr Nesbitt has already made clear he could then take over the minister’s role himself, arguing that would be a good position for the Ulster Unionist leader in the run-up to the next Stormont election, probably in 2016.

In the meantime, Nesbitt assumes the chairmanship of the committee which monitors the First and Deputy First Ministers' Office, a post previously held by Tom Elliott, who remains a committee member.

Mr Kinahan was also on Tuesday appointed as vice-chair of the education committee — the third UUP member to occupy the position in as many months.

He replaces Mr Nesbitt, who was appointed to the post to replace David McNarry.

Lagan Valley MLA Mr McCrea remains chair of the department of employment and learning committee, North Antrim MLA Robin Swann is to become chief whip and Philip Robinson is being replaced as special adviser.

Upper Bann MLA Jo-Anne Dobson also remains in position as agriculture spokesperson, along with Sandra Overend (Mid-Ulster) as enterprise and industry spokesperson.

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