The Ulster Unionist Party must return to its original Assembly commitment to keep Sinn Fein out of government until the IRA disarms and disbands, South Antrim MP David Burnside insisted today.
Mr Burnside, who with fellow anti-Good Friday Agreement MP Jeffrey Donaldson was given special permission by party officers yesterday to contest the next Assembly election in Northern Ireland, said, if selected, he would be running on the 1998 manifesto.
As the 860-member Ulster Unionist Council prepared to debate next month whether First Minister David Trimble and colleagues should remain in government with Sinn Fein amid concerns about continuing IRA activity, Mr Burnside urged them to also return to the 1998 manifesto.
"If selected by the South Antrim association, I am happy to stand by the last Assembly manifesto," Mr Burnside told PA News.
"I just wish everyone else in Stormont had.
"That manifesto said IRA/Sinn Fein should not be allowed in the executive until it totally disarmed and totally disbanded.
"That means no importing of weapons, no engaging in ongoing terrorist and criminal activity either in Northern Ireland or with other terrorist groups around the world.
"Those were the conditions set in the last Assembly manifesto and those are the conditions I stand by."
Ulster Unionists are preparing for a tough battle across Northern Ireland with the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists in elections which could take place next May or earlier.
With selection meetings due to take place throughout September and October, the pro and anti-Agreement wings of the UUP will be vying for supremacy in 18 constituencies.
Mr Burnside is expected to secure a nomination in South Antrim in a bid to shore up the UUP’s vote in the face of an anticipated challenge from the DUP’s former MP for the area, the Rev William McCrea.
The DUP is expected to run the Rev McCrea again in South Antrim - switching him from his Mid-Ulster Assembly constituency in an attempt to win two of the six Stormont seats.
The Free Presbyterian minister lost the seat in the General Election despite almost doubling the DUP’s vote in the 1998 Assembly election.
David Burnside recaptured by a majority of 1,011 votes the seat he lost to the Rev McCrea several months earlier in a by-election.
The UUP currently holds two Assembly seats, with the DUP, nationalist SDLP, cross-community Alliance and the anti-Agreement Northern Ireland Unionist Party all on one.
Mr Burnside, whose Westminster vote exceeded the combined total of the UUP candidates in the 1998 Assembly elections, will be the standard bearer for anti-Agreement wing of his party in the constituency if selected.
Pro-Agreement UUP hopes could rest on deputy Assembly speaker Jim Wilson.
UUP sources believe the party’s other MLA in South Antrim, Duncan Shipley-Dalton - a strong supporter of the Agreement and outspoken critic of Mr Burnside - is in danger of being deselected.
Mr Burnside today hoped to contest South Antrim with "two strong running mates, securing a strong turnout of unionist votes".
In a reference to the Ulster Unionist Council meeting on September 21, he said: "What I would like to see is a return to the manifesto of 1998.
"With all that has happened on the streets of Belfast, the ongoing terrorist activity in Northern Ireland and in Colombia, it is clear IRA/Sinn Fein is in breach of its ceasefire.
"Unionists must begin a sequence of events to ensure Sinn Fein does not remain in government."