Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: Make poll a referendum on DUP and Sinn Fein's appalling track record

RHI debacle is just the latest in a decade-long litany of misrule... tomorrow, you can vote for a better way, writes Mike Nesbitt

This Assembly election campaign has a very different feel from last year, or 2011 for that matter. People are much more engaged in politics. They are angry, because they understand this latest scandal, called the Renewable Heat Incentive; what is there not to understand about needlessly burning £85,000 of taxpayers' money every day?

People are not just angry, they are fed up, after 10 years of the DUP and Sinn Fein leading the Executive - a decade characterised by debacles and disappointments, false starts and broken promises, and an attitude to the public infamously summed up by a former special adviser as: "The party comes first."

This election has been caused by the biggest financial scandal in Northern Ireland's history. We simply cannot afford another Sinn Fein/DUP Executive.

This election must be a referendum on the handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the DUP and Sinn Fein's record in government over the last 10 years.

Those two parties know this and that's why they have spent the campaign engaging in the dog-whistle politics of Orange and Green, in an attempt to divert attention away from their disgraceful record.

The DUP have resorted to their usual, stale tactic of whipping up Project Fear amongst unionism. They've spent more time dreaming up new bogeymen over the last 10 years than providing strong, confident leadership to unionism. It's absolutely shameful.

Their flagship reason for voting DUP is that it will stop Sinn Fein taking the First Minister's office. They played the card last May and returned with 38 seats, a full 10 more than Sinn Fein.

If we were to go along with their game of the politics of fear and consider a situation where the DUP and Sinn Fein did switch places, Michelle O'Neill would only become First Minister should Arlene Foster nominate to be her deputy.

Sinn Fein have been shameless hypocrites. They have built a campaign around protecting the principles of the Belfast Agreement. They seem to have forgotten that they were nowhere to be seen when the Ulster Unionists and SDLP were enshrining the principles of respect, equality and mutual trust that they now try to claim to be the guardians of.

Even now, their commitment to respect goes AWOL when it suits them. Tasteless tweets about the Maze escape, no condemnation from a candidate when asked about the murder of Edgar Graham, a puerile reaction to Colum Eastwood's attendance at our party conference. How can either of them be trusted?

I'm not writing this to tell you that, with the Ulster Unionists in charge, we would build utopia. All societies face challenges and we live in an increasingly uncertain world.

But we want to face those challenges without feeling we have to poke our partners in the eye in perpetuity. We face serious problems in health, education and housing. These are the things that affect you, your family, your life opportunities every single day. Yet, we have spent most of devolution being rocked between scandals and Orange versus Green rows.

I look around at my team of candidates and I see people who just want the chance to do better for Northern Ireland. They are as angry as you are that we are governed by parties who consistently put their own petty political needs ahead of those of the country.

The Ulster Unionist Party knows what it is to take hard decisions for the benefit of Northern Ireland. We did it in 1998 to end the slaughter of our people. We left the Executive in 2015 in the aftermath of the murder of Kevin McGuigan, when faced with the choice of believing the Chief Constable or believing Gerry Adams. And we formed the first Opposition since 1972 last May to offer normal politics and choice to the electorate.

This will be the first election in the history of Northern Ireland where you have the opportunity to vote for change. Never before have you gone to the ballot box with the power to either reward the Executive with another mandate, or give the parties of Opposition the chance to deliver better.

We are under no illusions about how difficult the road ahead will be. There is much work to be done to restore the integrity of our institutions.

We have published a five-point plan to clean up Stormont. There needs to be greater accountability of ministers and their Spads, an end to the abuse of the petition of concern and transparency in political donations.

But, in reality, the DUP and Sinn Fein being returned as the two largest parties is guaranteeing stalemate. They have spent the campaign talking about the long period of negotiations we will face post-election. This means that finding solutions to spiralling NHS waiting lists, teachers' pay and a crisis in housing waiting lists will all be on hold while the DUP and Sinn Fein attempt to get one over on each other for their own benefit. It doesn't have to be this way.

On March 6, we could have an Assembly where the two largest parties are willing partners, who want to work together to make Northern Ireland a success. Parties who are capable of mutual trust and know that respect does not come at a cost to anyone's unionism, or nationalism.

I and my team are standing ready to make this a reality. The DUP and Sinn Fein have had 10 years - and they've blown it.

We promise you that every single vote for Ulster Unionist candidates will be a vote to end the scandals and failures of the last decade.

But with all that said, here's the fundamental point: the only person who can really change this is you. If you don't go out and vote for better tomorrow, it's not going to happen. Simple as that.

This country needs a new beginning. One free from incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the whiff of corruption.

I have a team ready to deliver better days for Northern Ireland. I only ask that you give us a chance to do this tomorrow.

  • Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and an election candidate in Strangford

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