REPUBLICANS could transform the state of the Northern Ireland peace process by committing themselves to the same democratic principles as other parties, an Ulster Unionist claimed yesterday.
Former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland told a meeting of nationalist SDLP councillors that unionist concerns about Sinn Fein’s links with the IRA were not sectarian.
Ringland also said he wanted to see an end to the infighting within his own party, with the Ulster Unionists instead working with other parties such as the SDLP to deliver a better society in Northern Ireland.
Speaking after his meeting in Belfast, he added: "The majority unionist community wants this process to work but they have genuine concerns.
"Nationalists have tended to see these concerns as some sort of unionist versus nationalist thing, but it is not.
"What they [the unionists] want and expect from the republican movement is for them to abide by the same democratic rules as everyone else.
"The whole political environment in Northern Ireland could be changed dramatically if the republican movement was to move on the weapons issue and agree to basic democratic principles that we apply to everyone else.
"I am fed-up with the way republicans’ response to this issue has determined the relationship between parties in this process."
Ringland was commenting as rival sections of the Ulster Unionist party prepared for a showdown early next month.
The party’s ruling council has been convened to debate disciplinary action against three MPs who have defied UUP policy and have resigned the whip at Westminster.
Supporters of UUP leader David Trimble have put on hold disciplinary action against the rebel MPs - the Rev Martin Smyth, Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside - until the 900-member council has voted on whether they should face sanctions.
The MPs angered the party leadership in June by resigning the whip in protest over the council’s failure to reject the British and Irish government proposals on the future of the peace process.
Ringland, a member of the party in East Belfast, said his colleagues would face a clear choice when the council meets.
"All our energies which should be devoted towards delivering a better society with other parties on real issues such as health, housing and education, are currently being used up fighting among ourselves.
"My party has to make a decision. Is this going to be a continual fight?"
The East Belfast UUP constituency association member, who previously addressed nationalists at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, said the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists needed to get their parties in shape for the next election.
"I wanted today to address a party, leaving aside Alliance and the smaller pro-agreement parties, which cares not just about its own community but the whole community in Northern Ireland and wants to create a better place for all of the people," he said.
"As far as the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists are concerned, at the next election, our two parties will have to present to the electorate a choice of if they want to back parties who will work for the benefit of all the people or support those who want to divide Northern Ireland up for their own self-interests.
"We have to be strong in what we stand for and make clear that we want to work in co-operation for our community’s mutual benefit."
SDLP councillor Pat Mallon welcomed Ringland’s visit, saying it was "extremely interesting and useful" to hear another party’s perspective on the process.
"What is clear is the need for dialogue and lines of communication to remain open," he said. "As a party that has done all in its power to work for the community and inclusivity the SDLP believes exercises such as this are essential."