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ANALYSIS: UUP seize the initiative with little to lose

Mike Nesbitt is seeking his party's endorsement to leave the executive. Picture by Colm Lenaghan, Pacemaker

Those Ulster Unionists who are longer in the tooth relished yesterday's Stormont press conference as it represented freezing cold revenge being served on the DUP. It was Peter Robinson's party who in the years immediately following the Good Friday Agreement badgered the then first minister David Trimble over the UUP's decision to remain in government ahead of IRA decommissioning.

A decade-and-a-half on, the shoe is now firmly on the other foot and Mike Nesbitt is seeking to milk that advantage for all it's worth.

With Peter Robinson on holiday and the DUP being far from decisive in its response to the PSNI revelations about the IRA's continued existence, the former news anchorman saw an opportunity to seize the initiative. A move that sits in stark contrast to the thus far lacklustre response of the SDLP, whose leader appears to be afraid to speak his mind for fear of being culpable in Stormont's demise.

Having weighed up the options, the Ulster Unionist MLAs, MPs and MEP Jim Nicholson realised they had little to lose. Next May's elections and the fast-approaching budget crisis mean the Stormont executive at most has little more than six months life left in it, while in recent months Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has been little more than a whipping boy for the bigger parties, who have given him a hard time over the impact of cuts on road maintenance.

In leaving the executive – albeit a move that's yet to be endorsed by the party's ruling council – Mr Nesbitt has differentiated the Ulster Unionists from the DUP. He has taken to the moral high ground and from that vantage point will spend the time between now and the assembly election berating Peter Robinson for his failure to face down Sinn Féin and the IRA.

The DUP, meanwhile, are damned if they choose to follow their smaller rival's example and retreat from the executive, yet equally damned if they remain in government with Sinn Féin while the IRA, in whatever form, continues to kill.

On a broader level, however, the decision by one of the key signatories to the Good Friday Agreement to leave the executive and go into opposition may yet mark a watershed. In recent years with discussions about dismantling what Mark Durkan referred to as the "ugly scaffolding" surrounding the accord, Stormont has been heading towards a post-Good Friday Agreement era but this process could be greatly accelerated when a party once seen as a advocate of power sharing abandons the institutions' central plank.

Mike Nesbitt yesterday insisted that he remained committed to the 'project' and devolution though he was clear that what exists today was not what the Ulster Unionist Party had envisaged in 1998. He appears to have left the door open for a return at some stage but will need assurances about what IRA structures remain in place.

Before the Kevin McGuigan murder and the subsequent fall-out Stormont was already in a precarious state. Perhaps within weeks there may be nothing left for the UUP to come back to.

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