12/02/2005 - 16:10:09

The gloves came off today in the battle for nationalist votes in the next General Election in the North as SDLP leader Mark Durkan launched his bitterest attack on Sinn Féin.

As the SDLP prepared to defend three Westminster seats in the face of a confident Sinn Féin electoral machine, Mr Durkan accused his rivals of besmirching the reputation of the nationalist community following the £26.5m (€38m) Northern Bank raid.

But as he launched his attack, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness accused Mr Durkan of trying to make his party relevant following a series of electoral setbacks since 2001.

In a no-holds-barred attack on Sinn Féin’s refusal to accept the IRA was responsible for the bank robbery, Mr Durkan told the SDLP conference in Derry: “The reason we are in this crisis is because the Provisional movement has let down everybody who made leaps of faith in this process.

“So don’t anyone think that the answer is now to ask us to make leaps of fiction. When their (Sinn Féin’s) doublespeak runs out and their lies aren’t just believed, what do they seek cover in? Their mandate.

“But no nationalist voted for bank robberies. No nationalist voted for abductions or families being threatened with death.”

With the Northern Bank heist shattering any hope that power sharing could be restored early this year, Mr Durkan ruled out proposals to have devolved government without Sinn Féin.

Exclusion of Sinn Féin would play into the hands of the party, he warned.

Downing Street distanced itself, however, from earlier claims by Mr Durkan that British Prime Minister Tony Blair lobbied him to freeze Sinn Féin out of government by signing up to a voluntary coalition at Stormont with unionists.

A spokesman said: “The (British) government’s position is that it has to explore all the options being put forward by the various parties. That does not mean it has decided on a particular one option.”

Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness dismissed Mr Durkan’s claim.

“The NIO script always favoured a UUP/SDLP partnership and Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady encouraged this approach,” the Mid Ulster MP said.

“In reality, Mark Durkan’s remarks today are an effort to make his party relevant going into elections. The electorate has already spoken on this matter. They have ruled out exclusion and the abandonment of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin is confident that they will do this again in the upcoming elections.”

In a measure of the deep rivalry between both parties ahead of the Westminster and local government elections, around 15 republicans picketed the hotel which hosted the SDLP conference in Derry.

Sinn Féin believes it can take all three SDLP seats at the next election.

However, while Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP in Newry and Armagh in the Assembly election, SDLP strategists point out they remained 3,915 votes ahead in 2003 on a lower turnout in Eddie McGrady’s South Down constituency.

The SDLP was also 1,532 votes ahead in Foyle where Mr Durkan will defend his mentor John Hume’s seat against Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin.

Mr Durkan today lambasted his rivals’ handling of recent negotiations, accusing Sinn Féin of not negotiating in the interests of all the people of Ireland but for themselves.

“It was about protecting the self-interest and self-image of the Provisional movement, their ex-prisoners on district policing partnerships, an amnesty for their on-the-runs, a blind eye to their criminality and no sight of their guns,” he alleged.

“And what was their deal breaker? The release of their garda-killing bank robbers.

“There’s only one thing Sinn Féin are true to – their name. Sinn Féin means ourselves. That’s all they care about. That’s who and what they negotiate for - themselves. So much for their Ireland of equals.”

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