Defence Secretary Liam Fox has been warned he would be “raising the white flag” to dissidents if he refused to back down over allowing a Belfast homecoming parade for troops returning from Afghanistan.
During an event in Westminster yesterday the Tory Cabinet minister was pressed on whether Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that “no decision had been made” meant a change of heart was in the offing.
He left the door open for a rethink but stressed other options to recognise the “contribution and courage” of the Irish Guards and Royal Irish Regiment were being looked at.
Dr Fox also insisted that the soldiers themselves must be consulted to find out how they want to mark their return from a gruelling tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The DUP’s Ian Paisley said: “I absolutely have no doubt the soldiers and their families would want to pass through the capital city of Northern Ireland.
“They would have tremendous support from people in the community.
“It sends a terrible signal to refuse to allow a homecoming parade. It is raising the white flag to dissidents.”
Talks are on-going between the Ministry of Defence, Northern Ireland Office and Belfast City Council officials as well as political leaders over the block on celebrations. Dr Fox told the Belfast Telegraph: “We are discussing with the Armed Forces and with Belfast City Council how we can best recognise the achievements — there have been other homecoming parades.
“We want to, together with all the parties involved, find a way of recognising the contribution and the courage and professionalism shown in Afghanistan in the way we think is most suitable and is also what the soldiers themselves actually want.”
More than 1,500 Northern Ireland soldiers returned from Helmand province earlier this month.
Homecoming parades for them are due to take place in Ballymena and Lisburn in Co Antrim and Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh next month.
Brief but violent skirmishes between republicans and loyalists broke out around Belfast city centre during the last military homecoming parade in 2008. An estimated 30,000 people turned out to cheer on the soldiers .
A massive security operation around the parade cost millions of pounds. Last week the Belfast Telegraph revealed the MoD had declined an invitation from Belfast City Council for a parade this year, citing post-operational commitments as the reason.