Sinn Féin must “get real” about the existence of the IRA or face the political consequences, Mike Nesbitt has warned.
In a hard-hitting speech delivered to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) conference, the UUP leader said his decision to walk out of the power-sharing Stormont Executive had been “vindicated” and that Sinn Féin’s denials had worn a hole in the fabric of devolution.
Mr Nesbitt said: “Sinn Féin will defend the indefensible by saying the IRA are butterflies who have flown away.
“I make this offer to them: Get real. We want to respect your political mandate. Make it possible for us.
“Get on the same page as the rest of the world – or accept the consequences of the stance you have chosen to adopt.”
The address to delegates at the Ramada Hotel on the edge of South Belfast also included a stinging attack on unionist rivals the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over their return to power-sharing last week.
“The cat can lap it up like a bowl of very attractive double cream, but this canary is warning there is something toxic in the air,” Mr Nesbitt added.
Last week, an independent assessment of paramilitary activity compiled by MI5 and the police confirmed the IRA still existed but was not engaged in terror.
It also found that some IRA members believed its Army Council influenced Sinn Fein.
The report was commissioned by the British Government following the IRA-linked murder of Kevin McGuigan in August.
Police believe the father-of-nine was gunned down in revenge for the killing of IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison three months earlier.
The murders sparked a political crisis at the heart of the Stormont Assembly, prompting unionists to pull out all but one of their ministers.
Last week, the DUP – whose ministers had adopted a rolling resignation tactic - said it accepted the report’s findings but would not walk away from government.
Mr Nesbitt, whose father’s business was blown up by republicans in 1973, said he had submitted an application to the World Guinness Book of Records on behalf of the DUP for the number of political resignations.
He added: “We will not be standing shoulder to shoulder against paramilitarism with a political party that insists the IRA no longer exists. It looks like the DUP will.
“What a pity they won’t stand strong with us. But we will not be deflected. It’s not the first time we have had to do the difficult thing on our own.”
The speech was delivered to a reinvigorated UUP following the election of two new MPs Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott and a resurgence in support at council level.
Mr Nesbitt said the party was looking forward to the battle for Assembly seats next year.
“We will use the next Assembly elections to seek a mandate, not to go back into government, but to enter the talks on the new programme for government that will be the first order of business next May.
“If we believe that programme is progressive and positive, and we believe there is a collective will to deliver it, we will consider taking our entitlement at the Executive table.
“If not, we will remain in opposition.”
His “alternative programme for government” would include the creation of a mental health champion to help the one in four people with mental health issues in the region.
It would also tackle issues of identity, educational underachievement and health, including access to GPs, as well as the reduction in the rate of corporation tax.