Durkan seeks scrapping of OTR legislation


The British government faced new demands today to abandon controversial legislation which would grant amnesties to paramilitary fugitives.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who has labelled the Northern Ireland Offences Bill one of the worst to be produced for the country, called for victims' rights to be given precedent over so-called on-the-runs.

In his New Year message, the Foyle MP also called on all parties to start a countdown towards the restoration of devolution.   Mr Durkan has been a fierce critic of the proposed laws and launched a hard-hitting attack on the Bill following the completion of its committee stage at Westminster earlier this month.

He denounced the Government for agreeing to look again at only one issue - whether people accused of murder during the Troubles should be forced to take part in special tribunals considering their cases.

The SDLP leader said: "2006 must be the year that we leave the past behind on a moral basis.

"The British Government must heed the call now made by all the political parties in the North to withdraw the Northern Ireland Offences Bill.

"Instead we need to work on positive proposals for truth, recognition and remembrance that put victims` rights at their heart."

The Bill proposes that people suspected of offences before the Belfast Agreement can apply for a special licence to ensure they will never be arrested or sent to jail in Northern Ireland.

The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Democratic Unionists, SDLP, Ulster Unionists, the cross community Alliance Party, victims groups and human rights organisations have all been fiercely critical of the legislation.

In particular a bitter war of words has erupted between nationalists, with the SDLP accusing Sinn Fein of negotiating a scheme which would not just allow on-the-run IRA members to return to Northern Ireland, but also enable members of the security forces who colluded in loyalist murders to avoid jail.

Sinn Fein has insisted it never approved or discussed with the British and Irish Governments the inclusion of Royal Ulster Constabulary or British soldiers in the scheme.