By Irish politcal journalist JOHN COULTER
THE war of words between Unionists and Republicans over the British Army’s presence in the North hotted up as tensions between the two Stormont Executive government parties were strained to breaking point last Thursday night.
While the Provisional IRA has carried out three acts of arms decommissioning, the main loyalist death squads have yet to begin destroying their arsenals.
These terror groups include the Ulster Volunteer Force, Red Hand Commando, Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Freedom Fighters.
A few years ago, one of the fringe loyalist death squads, the dissident Loyalist Volunteer Force – a breakaway from the UVF – carried out a token act of public decommissioning of a small amount of guns.
The British Government has given the loyalists a year to begin decommissioning, otherwise the security forces could start jailing loyalists caught with weapons.
One reason loyalists have so far refused to hand over guns is because of the bitter internal feuds and ‘turf wars’ within loyalism over the North’s lucrative criminal empires and illegal drugs trades.
However, in recent days a crisis has emerged in the Stormont Executive between the main Unionist movement, First Minister Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionists, and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ Sinn Fein.
Tensions between the two parties were heightened last night as the DUP supported a move for a parade in the North to honour the Royal Irish Regiment, which has been fighting in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sinn Fein has opposed both the war and any ‘home coming’ RIR parade idea, branding it an insult to Irish Nationalists.
Sinn Fein West Tyrone Assembly member Barry McElduff has dismissed the suggestions that members of the RIR should be given a so called ‘homecoming parade’ on return from Afghanistan.
The campaign is being championed by various Unionist politicians. Responding to the campaign, Mr McElduff said: ‘The British army is not our army.
‘They are an army of occupation with a brutal track record in Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq to name but a few of their little “international adventures”.
‘Any parade would be an affront to Irish Nationalists and Republicans the length and breadth of Ireland. Such a parade would attempt to legitimise the illegal decision by the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair to invade Afghanistan.
‘Anyone who argues for a welcome home‚ reception for the British army in Ireland has clearly lost the run of themselves and should catch themselves on.
‘To those unionist politicians who are fronting this campaign I would suggest that we have more pressing political priorities to deal with at the Assembly.’
And the DUP/Sinn Fein war of words over security forces bases intensified over Unionist calls to retain an aging police barracks in east Belfast.
Sinn Fein challenged the DUP on why Unionists want to retain a militarised base like Mountpottinger.
Speaking after the DUP’s East Belfast Assembly member Robin Newton called for the retention of Mountpottinger Barracks in East Belfast, Sinn Fein’s Niall Ó Donnghaile has questioned what the exact reasons for this position are, especially in relation to the overwhelmingly nationalist Short Strand area in the east of the city.
He said: ‘Obviously the DUP in East Belfast have always had a desire to militarise the Short Strand area, after all they were the party who called for a “ring of steel” to be put around the district.
‘In the current climate within a new political dispensation, the DUP need to clearly outline the practical reasons why they want Mountpottinger Barracks retained.
‘Mountpottinger is a relic of the past; it is a symbol of all that was wrong with policing here in the North.
On top of that, in practical terms the base is over a century old, it is used on a part time basis as it is, and Strandtown Station on the Hollywood road is a short distance away as is Musgrave St Station.
‘No one disputes the need for effective community-based policing; I deal with people everyday who suffer as a result of anti-social behaviour and I continue to raise the very real concerns around drugs in East Belfast. These are issues we all need to tackle. the PSNI included.
‘What Sinn Fein and the community in the Short Strand want to see is the PSNI, like the rest of us, moving on into a new climate where these issues can be dealt with practically and I believe that we can do this. The retention of a huge militarised blight on our area does nothing to aid this endeavour.
‘Therefore I must ask again, what exactly are the practical reasons the DUP believe justify the retention of Mountpottinger Barracks?
‘Are they truly concerned about crime in East Belfast or is it a case that they want to maintain the “ring of steel” they once called for in the past?’
As well as the row over military bases, the current Unionist/Sinn Fein political feud has also dragged in the issue of freedom of movement across the island with Sinn Fein demanding that freedom of movement throughout Ireland should not be restricted.
The party’s North Antrim Assembly member Daithí McKay has criticised plans by the British and Irish Government to introduce checks at the border.
He also criticised proposed plans that passports will have to be produced when travelling across the border.
Mr McKay said: ‘As an Irish citizen my rights under the Good Friday Agreement are secured and my travel arrangements throughout Ireland should in no way be disrupted by having to produce my passport.
‘As an Irish citizen living in Ireland I and the many, many Irish Passport holders in the Six Counties will be affronted by having to produce their passport while travelling in Ireland.
‘Questions must be asked of the Irish Government; in one hand our rights as Irish citizens and passport holders are secured under the Good Friday Agreement, yet in the other their proposed plans would mean us having to produce passports when travelling through the country.
‘This will cause major disruption to the many people who live on the border, and who travel across to work day in and day out.’