Durkan says paramilitary groups must disband

 

The peace process will collapse if the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries do not disband, SDLP leader Mr Mark Durkan said yesterday.

As he accused the British and Irish governments of pandering to the gunmen, Mr Durkan urged all sides to join together in demanding that paramilitary organisations go out of business.

He declared: "Sustaining and developing the Agreement into the future requires an end to paramilitarism."

The SDLP chief told his party's annual conference that hardliners bidding to wreck the peace deal struck four years ago were wasting their time.

Unionist confidence has been shattered by allegations of an IRA spy ring inside the Northern Ireland Office while nationalists and republicans have been incensed by continued loyalist sectarian attacks.

But even with the power-sharing government at Stormont on ice, Mr Durkan insisted there was no alternative.

He said: "We will not deviate from the agreement. Nor will it be renegotiated."

But it was claimed the crisis that has engulfed the political process is being fuelled by activity away from the devolved Assembly.

In an attack on London and Dublin, Mr Durkan said: "It is more about the way that governments appear to be running after paramilitaries, humouring hard men and bartering bits of the agreement and things not in the agreement."

It is not enough for individual party leaders to speak about a future without the armed groups, he told conference delegates gathered at a hotel in Armagh City.

"We need to collectively affirm that the agreement entails a future without paramilitaries. Each of them specifically and all of them together."

As new Northern Secretary Mr Paul Murphy attempts to breathe new life into the stuttering process, sceptical unionists have been demanding the Belfast Agreement scrapped.

But in a stout defence of the agreement, Mr Durkan described it as a "covenant of honour" between unionists and nationalists on both sides of the Irish border.

"I am 100 per cent for a united Ireland. I am 100 per cent for the agreement. Neither diminishes nor qualifies the other," he said.

"I can also state that I know others who are 100 per cent for the Union with Britain and also 100 per cent for the agreement.

"That's the strength of the agreement. It offers a democratic common denominator between unionist and nationalist, loyalist and republican."

However, he insisted it was time to fully implement all of its outstanding strands, including a Bill of Rights, the Criminal Justice Review and a north/south parliamentary forum.

He also called on the governments and political parties to agree on a path for policing and justice powers to be devolved to the Stormont Assembly when it returns from suspension.

The SDLP leader argued this would cement police reforms in Northern Ireland and shore up confidence in the political devolved administration.

He added: "When we come back from crisis - and we will come back - there will be no more breakdowns waiting to happen, no more blocks further on up the road, no more pending excuses for walk-outs or stand-offs."

PA