The SDLP has denied undermining its own non-violent credentials by lining up alongside hardline republicans to call for a dissident to be freed from prison.
Unionist politicians voiced anger on Tuesday over the decision of the whole nationalist/republican bloc on Derry City and Strabane Council to back a call to have Tony Taylor released, after the Secretary of State revoked his licence.
DUP councillor David Ramsey said the move represented “a step back” for the SDLP.
The Secretary of State herself meanwhile said that the reasons for his re-incarceration would be discussed in an independent parole hearing (see Letters page).
The issue stems from last month, when it was revealed Taylor had been returned to prison.
He had been in prison since August 2011 while awaiting trial for possessing a semi-automatic 597 Magnum rifle.
He took part in a so-called “dirty protest” while in jail.
He pleaded guilty in 2014 and was sentenced to three years in custody, and five on licence. By that stage, he had already been in jail for almost three years.
Taylor is a member of the dissident Republican Network for Unity, and was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 1994 following a premature explosion in Londonderry in which he was injured, before being freed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
On Monday, dissident republican councillor Gary Donnelly called for his release.
The SDLP’s Brian Tierney then proposed an amendment to his motion, saying that evidence against Taylor should be presented against him in a court of law. The SDLP alone voted in favour of this, and the amendment fell.
All councillors then went back to debating the original motion – and Sinn Fein, independent republicans, and the SDLP decided to back it (with the vote being 28 to eight).
Councillor Ramsey said: “The SDLP as a party always opposed violence, and supported law and order. So this is extremely disappointing for moving forward.
“This is like them taking a step back, and moving into supporting violence. That’s the way that normal unionists – especially victims – are going to see it.”
He said that the SDLP had “a long time commitment right back to John Hume” on being opposed to violence, but that a vote such as the one on Tuesday undermines that stance.
Councillor Tierney responded that his party did not support terrorism “in any form, shape or fashion”.
He said: “The SDLP have always been against the use of violence, and we’ve always been in favour of dialogue.”
He said whilst they support the police and justice system, “we think that everyone is entitled to an open trial and Tony Taylor, at this stage, hasn’t been offered one. And the Secretary of State has not provided any explanation or evidence as to why Tony Taylor’s licence has been revoked.”
As it stands, he said “we have no reason to believe that Tony Taylor is a threat to anyone,” and that he should therefore be released.
The council is overwhelmingly dominated by Sinn Fein, with the party holding 16 out of 40 seats, and the SDLP holding nine.
The DUP meanwhile have seven, and the UUP just two (there are also five independent nationalist or republican councillors, plus independent unionist Maurice Devenny).
A message from the Secretary of State’s office said that Taylor will have “full legal representation” at an upcoming parole meeting which will “consider the basis on which his licence was revoked”.
The News Letter tried to find out when this meeting is expected to take place, but neither the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), nor the Department of Justice (DoJ), nor Courts Service, nor Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland were able to say.