BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 13.10.02

Interview: MARK DURKAN MLA, Leader of the SDLP

argues that helping to exclude Sinn Fein from the Northern Ireland Executive would not help to solve the crisis in the Peace Process and that even if the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, the Belfast Agreement must be preserved.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Tomorrow the Northern Ireland Secretary will announce the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland. The province will be governed directly from Westminster. It's happened before, but they managed to strike a compromise then and eventually put the Peace Process back on track. This time it's hard to see how that will happen. The immediate cause for the crisis has been the discovery that Republican spies have been operating at the heart of government in Belfast and that they've been collecting details about men and women who work in the prisons - where they live for instance. The implications of that are chilling. The Unionists have said Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, is not fit to be in government and should be thrown out of the Northern Ireland Executive. But that would need the support of the SDLP, the Nationalist Party that's always been against the use of violence and they won't give that support. Their leader is Mark Durkan and he's in our Belfast newsroom now. Good afternoon Mr Durkan. MARK DURKAN: Good afternoon John. HUMPHRYS: You accept the suspension is inevitable, I suppose, the right thing to do? DURKAN: Well, I'm realistic about suspension but I am not at all fatalistic about the Agreement and I think we can't afford the cooling off period that some people are talking about. I think we have to move firm and we have to move fast to show that we are in the business of getting back to business in Devolution and then fulfilling the Agreement. We can deal with the underlying confidence issues, we have to deal with all of those that are there and they are not just in one direction but we should also round up the different aspects of the Agreement we haven't yet implemented so that we are coming back with things that are bigger and better than they have been. HUMPHRYS: But as we speak it is the can't see an alternative? - suspension is the only way to go? DURKAN: Well the fact is we will not vote for the exclusion of anyone in circumstances where we don't know what the full evidence is. That's not to say that there isn't a serious case for Republicans to answer, even in relation to these recent allegations because clearly somebody, somewhere was putting a lot of information on getting a lot of material together and that has caused further disquiet to many people coming on top of the whole series of events involving the IRA or alleged IRA activity. But we also, as we have opposed exclusion, we know that it's no more tenable for us to vote to exclude Sinn Fein than it would be really for the Ulster Unionist Party to stay on in the Executive indefinitely in these circumstances and we know that Sinn Fein isn't going to resign as David Trimble has asked them to do. Now, in those circumstances I don't see how we can sustain things as they are. There will be suspension but let us make sure that people are very clear, Devolution might be suspended, the Agreement is not suspended. The Agreement is sustained, the two governments have to continue to implement the Agreement in ways that fall to them and there has to be an all-in exercise and an all-out effort by the pro-Agreement parties to deal with the underlying issues and bring the Agreement back. HUMPHRYS: As you say, David Trimble called this morning and we have heard it before, that...for the resignation of the Sinn Fein ministers in the Executive. Do you think, does the SDLP think they should go, resign voluntarily? DURKAN: Well, even if they did resign voluntarily to prevent suspension, we would still have to deal with the underlying confidence issues that are there.... HUMPHRYS: ...sure but do you think they should go, that's the first question. DURKAN: ...and those arise because of the continued existence and continued activity of paramilitaries and we all need to be in a position where we have a much clearer and better and more reliable understanding that the Agreement means a future without paramilitaries and that means Republicans being able to articulate that the Agreement means a future without the IRA and the Loyalists being able to articulate that it's an Agreement that it's a future without all of their paramilitaries. HUMPHRYS: I take that point but the question is - do you think that they should now, to save this process, at this stage, talk about what follows later, of course, but do you think that at this stage, to save it, to keep the Unionists in, they should resign, those ministers should resign? DURKAN: Let's face it, even if they did resign, that of itself doesn't actually solve the problem, any more than other people who have said that the SDLP should vote to exclude Sinn Fein... HUMPHRYS: the answer is no, you don't think they should resign? DURKAN: ...I don't think they are going to resign... HUMPHRYS:, I'm asking you whether you think they should? DURKAN: Well, let's deal with the real politick of the situation, the reality is I can't see ministers, Sinn Fein Ministers resigning. We have already had the Unionists Ministers threatening to resign. We can get into a whole finger pointing exercise here and people will say it's the SDLP's fault for not voting to exclude, it's the Unionists' fault for demanding that there be exclusion, it's the Unionists' fault for threatening to resign, or it's Sinn Fein's fault for refusing to resign. The fact is that the underlying issues aren't to do with who is ministers and who is not ministers, the underlying issues are because there is not sufficient confidence because of the continued resistance and activity of paramilitaries and there are wider confidence issues now because of this instability in the institutions. People on the Nationalist community are lacking confidence on what is the real intent and motive on Unionism at this point. So let's deal with all of those issues, in what falls to us during suspension and not continue the silly spat on who should or shouldn't resign at this point. HUMPHRYS: Yeah, but what is not a silly proposition is that you, the SDLP could vote for the exclusion of Sinn Fein. Now as you say, unrealistic to expect them to resign, I'll be talking to Mr McGuinness later and I am sure that he will not leap to do so. But here we have a party, by your own admission, that has a serious case to answer, clearly the IRA appear to still see itself at war, in one way or another, you have it within your power to say we will vote to exclude these people who are pursuing things that we do not like them pursuing from the Executive and yet you won't do that. DURKAN: Well we don't see first of all that that would actually resolve the underlying problem and sustain and recover the Agreement in the way that it should be. We also know that where there are a lot of allegations and I think some of those allegations seem to be serious and more information may emerge to add to that, but the fact is that we still don't have evidence. And so, I note that Sinn Fein are saying they have no involvement in anything, have no knowledge, they are not actually saying that there was absolutely nothing going on. But we can't afford to have a situation where people are saying that some sort of on-going level of activity by the IRA is somehow allowable, as some sort of occupational therapy for hard men. We are very clear that it is not. There is no acceptable level of paramilitary activity, either inside the political domain, or outside. But we want to hear Unionist politicians being as concerned and as exercised about the vicious violence continuing from Loyalist paramilitaries as they seem to be about the allegations against the IRA. HUMPHRYS: But as far as the IRA is concerned, you say and Sinn Fein is concerned, you say there is not enough evidence to satisfy you. The fact is there is enough evidence to satisfy Dublin, who themselves were wholly opposed to suspension but have now agreed to suspension because they think that there is a very strong case there. And yet you are saying you are not satisfied with it. DURKAN: No, I have said that I accept the case in these circumstances for suspension... HUMPHYRS: Then why do you not vote for their suspension? DURKAN: No, for suspension of Devolution... HUMPHRYS: Quite so. DURKAN: There's a difference between exclusion and exclusion vote under the Agreement and suspension of Devolution. HUMPHRYS: Quite so, what I am putting to you - okay let me us clear.....what I am putting to you is that if you believe that there is a strong case and you certainly seem to be suggesting that. Then it seems odd to many people that you do not vote for the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive. That's what I am putting to you. DURKAN: Well, I believe that there is a strong case and I believe that Sinn Fein can't continue to say that the allegations are comparable with the DUP getting some leaked documents or that this is all a put-up job by Unionists who don't want to share power with Catholics. I don't think that things can be dismissed in that way. But equally, let us be very clear, if we are talking about dealing with the underlying issue, if we are talking about upholding the Agreement and it was the SDLP was the party who negotiated inclusion into the Agreement, it wasn't Sinn Fein who put forward the idea of an inclusion of Executive appointed .... It was the SDLP, it was I who drafted and negotiated and stuck with that whole proposal whenever people were offering all sorts of alternatives. Now having done that then, when it was just a good idea and a good on concept, do you think we are going to turn our back on it now, whenever it has actually been proven to work and has been mandated by the people in a Referendum. HUMPHRYS: Mr Durkan, thanks very much indeed for that.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.