Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson has been criticised after he said he had "no regrets" about his past which included direct involvement in the Ulster Volunteer Force murders of two young Catholic men.
Politicians from a number of parties condemned Mr Hutchinson for comments made in yesterday's Belfast-based News Letter where he also suggested that his victims, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan, were not totally innocent.
He also said his UVF involvement helped prevent a united Ireland.
In convicting Mr Hutchinson and his UVF colleague Thomas Winston for the murders of the step-brothers Loughran (18), and Morgan (27), in October 1974, the judge described the killings as "cold-blooded". The men were shot at "random" as they walked to work in west Belfast, the court was told.
Asked if he regretted killing the two Catholics, Mr Hutchinson told the News Letter : "What I'm saying is that I regret every murder, but let's be clear that it's very easy for you to say that, but what I will say to you is that I didn't do anything without intelligence."
He said his view was he “was fighting a war” and that the “IRA left me with no option”.
And he added: “The reason I wouldn’t try to justify my actions is because I wouldn’t expect middle-class unionists to agree with what I did, but what I will say to you is that we’re not in a united Ireland. I regret every death in this society, but the point is that I will not in any way diminish or try to take away from what I did in the past.”
Mr Hutchinson, a former Assembly member and now a Belfast councillor, was a senior loyalist who, with David Ervine, helped persuade the UVF to go on ceasefire in 1994. He was also a key negotiator reflecting UVF opinion in the lead-up to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
North Belfast SDLP Assembly member Alban Maginness said the remarks were horrendous. "The notion that the murder of two innocent Catholics as they made their way along the Falls Road contributed to a political goal in any way is totally abhorrent," he said.
Sinn Féin councillor Niall Ó Donnghaile said while Mr Hutchinson still provides political advice to the UVF, what he should really explain is “why the UVF is still in existence and involved in racketeering and drugs”.
Alliance MP Naomi Long said Mr Hutchinson's comment demonstrated a "callous disregard for victims". She added: "I think that Mr Hutchinson would do well to reflect on the pain caused not just at the time but by his continued attempts to justify the unjustifiable."
Trevor Ringland of the Northern Ireland Conservatives accused Mr Hutchinson of "rewriting" history. "His comments are deliberately misguided and they represent a dangerous strain of thinking we keep hearing from apologists for both the loyalist and the republican terror campaigns," he said.