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OPINION: Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt

The Ulster Unionist Party is a party of government. I accept that statement is unlikely to make nationalists dewy eyed with nostalgia, but it is important in underlining the magnitude of the decision to go into opposition for a party that has government in its DNA.

This was not an easy decision for us to reach, but here’s why it is right.

Our party stretched itself to absolute breaking point in 1998 to reach the agreement and in the years following to try to deliver its vision of a peaceful, terror-free society with a devolved government dedicated to creating prosperity for all, respect for our varied cultures and better government than direct rule from London. No one thought that the signing of the Belfast Agreement would immediately create a perfect society in Northern Ireland. But it offered hope, something currently in short supply.

At the heart of it was the opportunity to build mutual trust, between unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans. It's in the agreement, on page one. But that trust, as fragile as it may have been, has been shattered.

Our decision to leave the executive is not just based on the fact that the chief constable of the PSNI tells us that PIRA members murdered a man two weeks ago, or that Provisional IRA command structures remain. It is also based on the fact that despite this statement from the PSNI, Sinn Féin continues to deny the existence of the PIRA.

And we have seen it all too many times before. Sinn Féin’s habit of denying, discrediting and deflecting has worn thin. Just as their tendency to accuse their critics of attempting to damage the peace process gives them about as much cover as the emperor’s new clothes.

We cannot close our eyes. We were faced with believing the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland or believing Gerry Adams; the latter a victim of having used his single transferable speech of denial too often.

And to address the criticism flowing largely from Sinn Féin about my party engaging with representatives of Loyalism. We do not deny their existence. That's the difference. 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. 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. Plus, an end to criminality and the flying of paramilitary flags on our lamp posts. In any case, Sinn Féin want to talk to the so-called republican dissidents, for the same reasons.

Next year, those born in 1998 will be able to cast their vote for the first time. How perverse that they should still wake up to headlines of the PIRA having murdered a man on the streets of Belfast. This was not how it was meant to be. This was not the future we paved the way for seventeen years ago.

So our decision to move into opposition sees us ready to offer an alternative that will realise the vision set out in 1998. Where all traditions are offered mutual respect. Where our society is revitalised by the peace dividend we heard so much about but have yet to see delivered. Where our people finally feel that devolved government is working for them.

We want to build a Northern Ireland where we all prosper, unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans – equally.

We are fully committed to devolution. An opposition does not mean crisis, it is something that is common place in any democracy. But let’s face facts, things are bad. They will take a lot of work to fix. Trust needs to be rebuilt.

But the Ulster Unionist Party stands as ready as we did in 1998 to stretch ourselves and do the right thing.

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