The political vacuum at Stormont will be exploited by shadowy gunmen, UUP leader Robin Swann has warned.
He backed the renewed talks to restore powersharing which are due to begin soon following the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, 29, in Londonderry last week.
“We cannot ignore the fact that a political vacuum will be exploited and filled by the men and women of the shadows.
“As political leaders we must recognise that and get back around the table.
“No more red lines and pre-conditions.
“We need to have a frank and honest conversation about what the lack of devolution is doing to our people and the steps that need to be taken.”
Stormont has been suspended for more than two years following a row between former powersharing partners the DUP and Sinn Fein over a botched green energy scheme.
The UUP leader said: “A week on from one of the darkest days this country has seen for some time, it is important to reflect on the journey we are still on to provide our people with a society fully at peace.
“There are still those dark elements out there who seek to destroy lives.
“Those who still whip up young people into a frenzy, sending a new generation into the justice system while they retreat into the shadows.
“Whether in the Creggan, East Belfast or any other part of Northern Ireland, the message is clear. Get off the backs of our people.”
Mr Swann launched his party’s manifesto for next week’s local government election at an east Belfast hotel.
He said: “The reality is that in the absence of Stormont, over the last two years, local government has been the last remaining vestige of democracy that still functions and it survived through the toughest of times that Northern Ireland faced.
“That is why I believe that this election is about local councils, local democracy, local accountability and local responsibility.
“We cannot ignore that this campaign has seen the DUP and Sinn Fein trying to turn it into a border poll and create an atmosphere around it that is as toxic as the one they created at Stormont.
“We cannot allow them to turn our local councils into 11 mini-Stormonts ruled by dysfunctionality, blighted with disrespect and wrecked by scandals.”
Key manifesto priorities included:
– Abolishing the existing property rating system and replacing it with a more transparent version.
– Regenerating town centres.
– Retaining essential local health services.
– Supporting rural economies and boosting wider economic development.
– Maximising the potential of tourism.
Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged politicians to show those who murdered journalist Lyra McKee that politics worked.
If talks fail to produce an agreement then both governments must impose a deal, he said.
He said negotiations planned for next month should be short and any move to introduce “flexible” deadlines must be resisted by all the parties.