Families of people killed by British soldiers during the North's Troubles urged the British army today to call off a contentious parade for troops returning from Afghanistan.
Fears are mounting that Sunday’s homecoming event in Belfast could be a potential flashpoint with both Sinn Féin and anti peace process republicans organising separate marches.
The parade is being staged to welcome back soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment after their six month deployment in Helmand province.
Sinn Féin, which is opposed to the presence of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said holding such an event was insensitive, given the involvement of the British army in the conflict in the North.
Party representatives joined relatives of people shot dead by the British army during the Troubles in urging the UK's MoD to call off the event.
Clara Reilly, of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, a group that represents relatives of those killed and injured by the weapon, said it would be more appropriate if the British army held an event in private.
“We are not objecting to anyone wanting to celebrate the safe return of their loved ones from these conflicts,” she said
“We are anti-war but we don’t have an issue with families wanting to welcome back their sons, husbands or dads.
“But it should be a dignified civic reception or church service, holding a march through the city centre is insensitive, divisive and indeed sectarian.
“It will offend many, many people in the nationalist community who have suffered very badly at the hands of various regiments of the British army.
“Within that community the hurt is still very raw.”
Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brun said it was not too late for the MoD to cancel its plans.
“Sinn Féin are today calling for the British Ministry of Defence to call off the British army parade planned for Belfast this weekend,” she said.
“To date the MoD have been invisible on this contentious and divisive march, failing to put up any spokespeople or address the wider public concerns.
“This parade is insensitive, rash and completely unnecessary.”
An MoD spokesman in the North declined to be drawn on the comments and said the British army had nothing more to add on the issue at this time.
Unionist politicians say it is right and proper to hold an event to welcome back the troops and have accused republicans of creating a recipe for public disorder, claiming they could have held a march to express their opposition at another time.
While Sinn Féin has pledged its protest will be peaceful, DUP First Minister Peter Robinson accused the party of acting recklessly and irresponsibly by bringing people on to the streets.
There will be a heavy police presence amid fears of clashes between dissident republican elements, who have organised their own protest march, and loyalists who have been using text messages and the internet to call on supporters to attend.
Mr Robinson yesterday expressed his fears about the event.
“I just believe that people in Northern Ireland believed that we had moved away from this kind of tit-for-tat parading where a deliberate attempt was being made to run a counter parade and protest in order to disrupt the activities of the Army, in order to intimidate and to provoke,” the East Belfast MP said.
“And I just don’t think that in the new society that we are trying to create in Northern Ireland that that was a sensible step to take and I don’t think it can be justified.”
Unionists have also criticised the Parades Commission – the body that adjudicates on contentious marches in the region – for not placing tighter restrictions on the Sinn Féin event.
The commission has stressed that everyone in society has the right to protest.