The 26-County Prime Minister Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said today that unionist paramilitaries need “space, encouragement and support” to end their murder campaigns.

He was speaking at his party’s annual Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown in County Kildare.

Mr Ahern said that in the wake of the decommissioning of its weapons by the Provisional IRA, loyalist paramilitaries also needed to be “carried forward by the tide of opportunity”.

So far, none of the unionist paramilitary groups have made any promises to disarm.

“I am convinced that there are many within loyalism who wish to play a constructive part in the new landscape of relationships emerging. As with the journey embarked upon by militant Republicans, I recognise that they need space, encouragement and support to move beyond their recent past,” he said.

The small Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) said on Saturday it would maintain its links with the UVF despite a recent series of brutal murders by its paramilitary wing.

The UVF has been blamed for five murders in recent months, including a Catholic teenager, stabbed to death as he shopped for sweets, and four men alleged to be associated with the rival LVF.

At its annual conference, from which the media was excluded, the PUP claimed on Saturday that it was “committed to conflict transformation” and building a “strong, confident and vibrant loyalist community”.

“The Progressive Unionist Party is committed to conflict transformation and the processes that empower and build a strong, confident and vibrant loyalist community,” it said in a statement.

PUP chairman Dawn Purvis said that many people thought the annual conference would be the end of the PUP but added that the members had come out confident, re-invigorated and unified.

She said the focus of the conference had not been on IRA decommissioning.

“It didn’t feature heavily. The focus of the conference was ourselves,” she said.

The PUP called for “transformation in the political arena” and in particular amongst “those powerful influences that seek to destabilise loyalism - the same influences that opposed the calling of the ceasefires in 1994,” it said.

Around 100 PUP members attended the conference, which was held in the Park Avenue Hotel in East Belfast.

At the annual commemoration of the 1798 rebellion leader Wolfe Tone, Mr Ahern sought to reach out to the PUP, echoing the party’s press release.

“I pledge today that those seeking genuine efforts at transformation will see a positive and open response from my government,” he said.

Claiming to be a republican, Mr Ahern said that the will of the people of Ireland was for peace. He said the Provisional IRA had now “yielded to the will of the Irish people”.

“It has taken an unconscionable length of time and unforgivable pain and suffering but finally they have realised that it is the ballot box, and not the armalite, that can bring about change in the Ireland of the 21st century.”

He said he wanted to tell unionists there was no constitutional threat to the position of “Northern Ireland” from his 26-County Government.

“Those who used violence to try to force you into a united Ireland have, thankfully, not only stopped their war, but have decommissioned the means by which they waged that war,” he said.

He argued that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement “fulfils the ideals of all those in this and past generations -- to which the 1916 Proclamation refers -- who have worked for reconciliation and peace between the different traditions on this island”.

Mr Ahern also paid tribute to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and said the two “share a great political objective” - to see the Good Friday Agreement fully implemented.

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