Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams clashed with Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson after he wore a wristband supporting the Army at a meeting with families bereaved by British troops, it emerged today.
Details of their behind the scenes disagreement leaked after the senior republican led a delegation of families from west Belfast to meet the Conservative MP to discuss what has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre.
But as the relatives recounted how 11 of their loved ones were shot dead by troops in 1971, Mr Adams challenged Mr Paterson on his wearing of a wristband backing the Royal Irish Regiment at the meeting.
Government sources played down the incident and said Mr Paterson had worn the green wristband over a lengthy period in support of troops based in his North Shropshire constituency and that he had meant no offence.
But critics who recounted events in yesterday's meeting at Stormont House, near the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast, said: "During the course of the meeting, the wristband was clearly visible.
"At one point Gerry challenged Owen Paterson for wearing the wristband, given the nature of the meeting.
"Gerry made the point that this is a regiment that was born out of the UDR (Ulster Defence Regiment) which would not be thought of affectionately by nationalists.
"But more importantly this was a meeting at which a British Secretary of State was listening to a succession of horror stories from families who are victims of the British Army."
There was no accusation that Mr Paterson's wearing of the wristband was a deliberate bid to cause offence, but they accused him of being insensitive.
A British government source said Mr Paterson had not sought to cause offence and had worn the wristband for a lengthy period to back troops based in the area he represents at Westminster.
"The regiment is based in Owen Paterson's constituency and recruits soldiers from both communities in Northern Ireland, from the Republic of Ireland and from up to 11 nations," the source said.
"The Secretary of State was very pleased to support them on their way in Afghanistan."
The Ballymurphy relatives want an independent investigation into claims members of the Parachute Regiment killed 11 unarmed civilians, including a Catholic priest, without justification.
The allegations centre on a three-day security operation in west Belfast only months before soldiers shot dead 14 civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972.
The families from the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast have stopped short of demanding a probe along the lines of the costly Bloody Sunday Inquiry.
But after yesterday's meeting they indicated they had failed to receive any commitment from Mr Paterson for an independent investigation of their case, though he is to meet the families again in the new year.
Leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party Jim Allister attacked Mr Adams over the incident and defended the Secretary of State.
"Why shouldn't the Secretary of State show his support for our brave soldiers of the RIR who today play their part in facing down the Taliban, just as in former times they faced down Adams' Provos?" he said.