04 January 2006

SDLP proposals for new NI initiative


WEDNESDAY 04/01/2006 12:22:39

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British and Irish government plans for a political initiative for Northern Ireland during 2006 must include the scrapping of a Bill dealing with murders during the Troubles, officials were told today.

As Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his foreign minister Dermot Ahern met to discuss how they would revive power sharing at Stormont along with the British Government, SDLP Assembly member Alex Attwood set out five benchmarks by which any plan would be judged.

The West Belfast MLA said: "These markers should include:

"Acts of completion on policing by the provisional movement now not later.

"Standing by the Good Friday Agreement, not the DUP/Sinn Fein planned `Comprehensive Agreement` of 2004.

"With victims and survivors agreeing how to deal with the past, abandoning the Northern Ireland Office/Sinn Fein on-the-runs/state iller proposals.

"Being forthright about organised crime both by illegal groups and individuals inextricably linked to such groups.

"Devolution of Justice proposals which safeguard the new policing arrangements and transfer powers to the fullest extent."

Northern Ireland`s Assembly, power sharing executive and other political institutions have been suspended since October 2002 when allegations about a republican spy ring at Stormont threatened to permanently destroy them.

Since then, the province has been administered by a team of Northern Ireland Office ministers which are currently led by Secretary of State Peter Hain.

Following the IRA`s declaration last July that it had ended its armed campaign and the completion of the organisation`s disarmament programme, the British and Irish governments have been pinning their hopes for political progress on a report later this month from the ceasefire watchdog, the Independent Monitoring Commission.

Officials believe if the IMC confirms the Provisionals are remaining true to their word that could provide a springboard for talks leading to the return of the Assembly.

But the DUP has insisted it cannot contemplate reviving power sharing without progress on a list of confidence building measures for their community given to Downing Street last year.

The political climate has been further soured by criticism at Westminster of the British Government`s Northern Ireland Offences Bill from Opposition parties, unionists and the SDLP.

The Bill would enable people who carried out murders before April 1998 to avoid jail.

Sinn Fein also withdrew its support for the Bill before Christmas because of the inclusion of members of the security forces alongside on-the-run republican terror suspects as people who could qualify for the scheme.

The collapse last month of the case against the three men accused in 2002 of operating the Stormont spy ring and subsequent revelation that one of them - Sinn Fein`s former head of administration Denis Donaldson was a spy for British intelligence - has also complicated the political climate.

Mr Attwood said today the governments had to move beyond warm words of encouragement and on to tough messages during 2006.

Pledging the SDLP`s willingness to work to achieve devolution during 2006, he said: "The DUP and the Provisional Movement for their own narrow reasons have held back the Agreement and the best hopes of the people of Ireland.

"Both must hear an unambiguous message from London and Dublin that politics will not move at the pace of the problem parties."

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