SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell has slammed the level of collusion between the British authorities and loyalist paramilitaries at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

But the respected leader also told his party’s annual conference in Armagh that the level of collusion never ‘justified’ the IRA campaign of violence.

McDonnell described levels of collusion between the British and loyalists as ‘truly shocking’ in his address as US envoy Richard Haas conducts talks on the flag and parades issues in  Belfast.

Dr McDonnell told the SDLP conference it is critical that the legacy of the Troubles is addressed on an ethical basis.

He said: “Central to that healing process is uncovering the truth about all killings and securing answers and a measure of justice for all victims and survivors.

“That includes getting to the truth of the appalling British State collusion with loyalist murder gangs that takes on a more sinister character with every new disclosure.

“That collusion is truly shocking but it never ever justified a single IRA atrocity. And the IRA must come clean and tell the truth as well.

“And no IRA atrocity can ever justify unionist politicians dismissing collusion. Such talk is not just insulting to victims and survivors. It’s insulting to the hundreds of honest RUC officers who hunted down loyalist killers as well as IRA killers and brought them to justice”

Speaking to 400 delegates ahead of the European and council elections next summer, McDonnell said the SDLP was ‘ready for the electoral battle next May’.

He added: “With a little more help from each of you we will confound the critics and baffle the cynics.

“People feel very badly let down by the two main Northern Ireland parties. The DUP and Sinn Féin are the parties of disappointment, false promise, poor government, bad politics - and no results. They have had their chance and they have failed the test.

“After thirty years of murder, abuse, and suffering our battered society is crying out for healing and reconciliation. The SDLP’s core values are reconciliation, social justice and prosperity which are central to rebuilding faith in politics, and trust in politicians and delivering worthwhile benefits.”

The Irish Times reports that McDonnell defended the SDLP’s decision last Christmas to support limiting the flying of the British union flag over Belfast City Hall.

He said: “As Irish nationalists we make no apology for regarding the tricolour as our national flag. We believe that the Irish tricolour, emblems, symbols, and language should be given parity of esteem.

“Last December, Belfast City Council arrived at a sensible compromise, to fly the union flag on designated days, a decision that was supported by the SDLP. It is unfortunate that unionists cannot do compromise.

“There must be a comprehensive approach to addressing matters of political and cultural identity such as emblems, symbols, languages and memorabilia.

“The British and Irish Governments must be the co-guarantors of any agreement emerging from the Haass Talks . They must be fully engaged in any outcomes and exert the power and influence for a sustainable solution.

“The needs of victims and survivors must have priority in this process especially the voices of those victims that have been silent for too long such as those families of the Disappeared profiled so movingly in a recent documentary.”