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Nesbitt defends loyalist paramilitary engagement

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt announces his party's intention to leave the Stormont executive Picture Mal McCann.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has defended his association with loyalist paramilitaries by saying his party's aim is to bring as many people as possible into the political process.

The Strangford MLA this week faced accusations of hypocrisy for walking away from the Stormont executive over continued Provisional IRA activity a year after forming a united front on parading with the political spokesmen of the UDA and UVF.

Last year's so-called 'graduated response' saw representatives of the DUP, UUP, TUV, Progressive Unionists (PUP) and Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) come together in response to the Parades Commission's decision to block a July 12 return march on Belfast's Crumlin Road.

Writing in The Irish News today, Mr Nesbitt says there is a difference in "engaging with representatives of loyalism" and Sinn Féin's denials about the existence of the IRA.

"Our aim has always been to bring as many people as possible into the political process and persuade them to move away from criminality and terror," the Ulster Unionist leader writes.

"Let me be clear, I want the IRA, UVF, UDA and the rest to go away and stop terrorising the communities they purport to represent."

Mr Nesbitt compares his association with loyalist paramilitary representatives to Martin McGuinness's efforts to engage with dissident republicans.

The Ulster Unionist leader's comments come as the party's ruling council prepares to vote tonight on whether to endorse Mr Nesbitt's recommendation to leave the power-sharing executive. His exit proposal, which was announced on Wednesday after a meeting of UUP elected representatives and senior party officials, is expected to be supported.

An official endoresement from the party would see Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy resign his post early next week.

The move has put pressure on the DUP to move more decisively over the fall-out from the August 12 murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast's Short Strand. The party has warned that "cannot be business as usual" after the chief constable revealed that IRA members were involved in Mr McGuigan's killing.

Former DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson accused the UUP of "positioning itself for an election" while his party was focused on punishing republicans.

The East Antrim MP said the decision to leave the executive was "riddled with hypocrisy".

"The UUP walking out of the executive has no impact on the continuance of devolution and has even less impact on Sinn Féin," he said.

"Indeed, I would challenge Mike Nesbitt to explain how his party's tactic puts any pressure on republicans – the UUP's decision to leave government is cowardly rather than courageous and self-serving rather than selfless."

Mr Wilson said the DUP hoped to meet David Cameron next week where they would be emphasising that there is "no place in government for anyone not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means".

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy said tonight's UUP executive meeting was simply a "rubber-stamping exercise" for Mr Nesbitt's attempts to spook the DUP into collapsing the institutions.

The Newry Armagh MLA said the Stormont should be united to oppose Tory cuts.

"Given that the UUP has stood shoulder to shoulder with the representatives of unionist paramilitary groups involved in extortion, drug dealing and murder, it is clear they are driven purely by electoral self interest," he said.

"Let me be clear that Sinn Féin and our voters cannot and will not be wished away or excluded – those days are long over."

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