The Criminal Justice Minister last night declined to call on police to seize loyalist weapons after a senior PSNI officer indicated police know how to find arms dumps.
While local politicians said the PSNI should grab any guns they know about, NIO Minister Paul Goggins called on loyalists to hand them in.
Outgoing Assistant Chief Constable Peter Sheridan, who is in charge of intelligence, said police have intelligence in place to locate loyalist weapons.
“The short answer to that is yes,” he told the Irish News. “And then if the opportunity to arrest and prosecute is there, we will.”
Mr Sheridan, who retires in September, also said he is concerned that loyalists will begin to use the guns against each other. One year ago the weapons were turned on police during unrest in Carrickfergus and the Kilcooley estate in Bangor.
Sinn Fein Policing Board member Alex Maskey said he was angered by the revelation.
The only political pressure on the police is to do their job and that means bringing people to justice
The government is currently trying to pressure loyalists into handing over weapons before decommissioning legislation expires.
Asked yesterday if police should be seizing any weapons they know about, Mr Goggins said: “I think the point is this — loyalists should decommission. They should do it as soon as possible.
“There is in place, of course, legislation that provides an amnesty at the moment, but that legislation is fast running out. It's very important as we become a more normal society that they hand those weapons in and start leading law-abiding lives in the community.”
The Minister said there is no political pressure on police to prevent any seizures.
“The only political pressure on the police is to do their job and that means bringing people to justice and that's what people expect,” he said.
Asked if people who hold illegal arms also be brought to justice, Mr Goggins replied: “People who hold illegal arms should hand those weapons in and there's a means for them to do that.”
He said he would not comment on police intelligence. “I think the onus here is on loyalists and indeed any people in Northern Ireland society who have access to and ownership of illegal weapons, their responsibility is to hand those in,” he said.
Mr Maskey said the PSNI's attitude is “unacceptable and quite shocking”.
“Many will be angered by the comments made by Mr Sheridan and the position adopted by the PSNI,” he said. “To most people it is very simple — if you know where these weapons are — then go and get them.”
He said decommissioning legislation “is no barrier to the PSNI recovering loyalist weaponry”.
“Indeed it is the function of the PSNI to recover these guns,” the South Belfast MLA added. “The purpose of these weapons is to attack Catholics and protect organised crime rackets. Indeed, last year in Carrickfergus these very weapons were used to attack the PSNI.”
Alliance deputy leader Naomi Long said police should not be waiting for loyalists to decommission.
“If they know where any weapons are then they should act on that information and recover them,” she said.
“It would be good if loyalists decommissioned their own weapons but the police should not be sitting on their hands waiting for them to do so.
“There may be forensic evidence on these weapons on crimes carried out that they were used in that may be lost if they are handed over to be decommissioned.”