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Mike Nesbitt refuses to rule out return to Executive after next Assembly elections

Mike Nesbitt

The Ulster Unionists have not ruled out returning to the Stormont Executive on the far side of the next Assembly election.

Leader Mike Nesbitt revealed that he intends to produce the UUP's own blueprint for governance in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of the party's annual conference next week, he said his party will bring forward an alternative 'programme for government' and ask for a mandate for go into negotiations with other parties on it before the next Executive is formed.

"We will make a decision on whether we are in or out after that," he told the BBC's Sunday Politics programme.

The party withdrew its sole Executive minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Department of Regional Development, following the PSNI assessment that Provisional IRA members were involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

Mr Nesbitt said the party was going "into opposition" - but there is no provision in the current Stormont arrangements for such a move.

DRD was then taken over by the DUP Junior Minister Michelle McIlveen to prevent it going to Sinn Fein, but the DUP has since continually reappointed and resigned all its ministers apart from acting First Minister and Finance Minister Arlene Foster.

Mr Nesbitt said he knew the DUP wanted to return to office as soon as possible because the tactic had proved "absolutely disastrous".

In the strongest indication the party could return to the Executive, Mrs Foster has said the DUP will respond "positively" to positive developments during the inter-party talks on IRA activity and welfare reform.

"We did not shy away from taking action when the spectre of IRA violence cast a shadow over devolution, resulting in DUP ministerial resignations. However, we also want to build a better future and will respond positively when there are developments that deserve such a response," she said.

Arch-rival Jim Allister argued the DUP was preparing the ground to return their ministerial team to office ahead of the end of the ongoing negotiations, which have a tentative deadline of the end of this month.

"Regardless of what the independent panel says next week it is clear that the IRA murdered Kevin McGuigan," Mr Allister said, adding that Chief Constable George Hamilton had made it clear last week he stands by the assessment that Provisionals were behind the murder and retain a command structure.

"The farce of hokey-cokey ministers was never going to wash with the public. They could see that the DUP were merely keeping their partnership with Sinn Fein/IRA alive by this tactic from the start but with each resignation and reappointment the strategy became even more transparent. It could even have been described as comical were the issues not so serious," he said.

"If DUP ministers were resigning on a point of principle they would not have permitted themselves to be reappointed. It was pure opportunism to buy time."

Mrs Foster replied, however: "There has been a blinkered view from republicans which refused to even countenance the possibility of IRA involvement, regardless of the evidence. Jim Allister's view may be the polar opposite, but it is equally blinkered and he indicates that he will ignore any evidence which challenges his own opinion.

"Jim is not interested in solutions or in holding Sinn Fein to account, but simply on tearing down devolution. Whilst there will be soundbites and criticism from Jim there is absolutely no vision or strategy."

The SDLP's Alex Attwood urged the UUP not to be tempted to bounce the DUP out of the inter-party talks by walking out following this week's expected report on the extent and nature of Provisional IRA activity.

Belfast Telegraph