UUP leader Mike Nesbitt: We can work with SDLP as alternative to failing regime
Ulster Unionist conference welcomes nationalist leader Colum Eastwood as parties move further towards positioning themselves as a convincing opposition at Stormont
Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, has said his party can build a new political partnership with the SDLP and convince the public that there is an alternative to DUP-Sinn Fein rule.
Mr Nesbitt told the UUP's annual conference that the two parties would co-operate closely to make Northern Ireland work, and he accused the DUP-Sinn Fein administration at Stormont of failing people.
"When you vote Arlene, you're basically guaranteed to get Marty. Politically, they're joined at the hip.
"Maybe next time, we can persuade the people if you vote Mike, you get Colum. If you vote Colum, you get Mike.
"If you vote for the middle ground, you get better," he told around 600 delegates at the gathering in Belfast.
The SDLP's Colum Eastwood became the first nationalist party leader to address a UUP conference.
He received a standing ovation when he pledged that the two parties would co-operate to challenge the "all guff and no governance" ethos of the Stormont Executive.
Mr Nesbitt criticised First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster's record in government. He denounced the DUP for "colluding" with Sinn Fein to use the royal prerogative to appoint journalist David Gordon as a government spin doctor.
He said that joining with "King Marty" to avoid a public appointment process was "a far cry" from Mrs Foster's previous promise to hold "rogue and renegade" nationalist ministers to account.
Mr Nesbitt rounded on Sinn Fein for using the peace process as a weapon. "Any time something inconvenient comes along, Sinn Fein call it a threat to the 'peace process'. Sinn Fein have milked the peace process for all it's worth," he accused.
He also hit out at public funds going to community projects which included unreconstructed loyalist paramilitaries who were "lining their own pockets" and were still engaged in "racketeering and organised crime".
"If working-class unionist communities had wanted these gatekeepers to represent and lead them, they would have voted for them.
"The gatekeepers would share the blue benches of the Assembly. But they don't. Although they may have proxies in the biggest party," he said.
To applause from the floor, the UUP leader added: "I have little confidence in the arrangements in the so-called Fresh Start Agreement.
"We do not want annual reports on progress towards the disbandment of paramilitary groups. We want disbandment today - with sanctions for non-compliance."
Mr Nesbitt insisted that while the SDLP and UUP didn't agree on everything, they could do business. He suggested that a "proper shadow Executive promoting policies that actually address and solve the problems of a post-sectarian, post-peace process era" was possible.
While the Brexit argument had been settled, the UUP leader acknowledged that some nationalists had been left "shell-shocked and angry" by the referendum result.
"The days of Remainers and Brexiteers are over, but we must move on in a way that is mindful and respectful of the impact on our nationalist brothers and sisters," he added.
In his address, Mr Eastwood pledged that the SDLP and UUP would increasingly work together.
"We are different parties with different policies and different visions of the future," he stated.
"Our Irish nationalism and your unionism will not seamlessly fit any time soon (but) both the SDLP and Ulster Unionists share the common ground of wanting to make Northern Ireland work."
Mr Eastwood said that election turnout and trust in the Stormont political system had plummeted.
He insisted that, as "the architects and builders" of the institutions, the SDLP and the UUP could deliver change.
"In contrast, the DUP and Sinn Fein have no such ambition or aspiration for our people or this place. They never had," he accused. "They believe the symbolism of their coalition suffices, and offer nothing more.
"They're all guff and no governance. Even with 55 press officers, 16 special advisers and their new press secretary, they struggle to fabricate the illusion of progress."
The SDLP leader said that, together, the UUP and his party "must break up and break down" the "cosy establishment" created by Sinn Fein and the DUP. "Our success can permanently transform the politics of this place - old battles of identity will be replaced by a new battle of ideas."