No other European country would tolerate the prison regime in Northern Ireland that separates paramilitary inmates from other convicted offenders, an Assembly member has claimed.
Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie called for an end to the special status afforded to loyalist and republican paramilitaries at HMP Maghaberry ahead of an Assembly debate on the controversial issue on Monday.
Mr Beattie, who is tabling the debate at Parliament Buildings, said the Department of Justice should aim for a fully integrated system within Northern Ireland's only high security prison by 2026.
"A key question is, that 22 years on from the ceasefires and 18 years on from the Belfast Agreement, should we still be perpetuating the type of prison regime that existed during the Troubles," he said.
"It is quite clear that there are some in our society who are not willing to accept that the people of Northern Ireland want to live in a normalised society and they do not want to see guns on our streets.
"Whether you package them as paramilitaries, drug dealers or organised crime gangs, the truth is they are nothing more than criminals and must be treated as such.
"It is time to get serious and show that we as an Assembly and a society mean business."
Mr Beattie, the UUP's justice spokesman, added: "The longer we perpetuate the separated regime, the more credibility we give these gangsters and murderers.
"No other country in Europe would tolerate this situation and that is why on Monday I shall be asking the Assembly to call on the Justice Minister to move to a fully integrated regime by 2026."
Justice Minister Claire Sugden said: "I absolutely recognise the challenges of operating a separated regime in Maghaberry Prison. Generally prisoners in Northern Ireland are expected to live in integrated conditions and the Prison Service continues to believe that this is the best way to run prisons as it provides the greatest safety.
"However, whilst integration is ideal it is clear that there are prisoners who will not integrate and equally clear that if they are forced to do so, that can have a serious and disruptive impact effect on good order, discipline and security of the prison as a whole."