Plans by Sinn Fein to stage a protest against a military homecoming parade for soldiers returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan have been denounced as reckless and irresponsible after extra police officers had be drafted in for the event.
The Royal Irish Regiment is due to parade through central Belfast on Sunday to mark the return of its members, who have just completed a six-month deployment in Helmand province. Personnel from the Army, Navy and RAF are to take part in a service at St Anne's Cathedral.
But Sinn Fein has objected to the event and plans to stage a protest. The republican party is opposed to British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is highly critical of the Army's record during the Northern Ireland Troubles. Permission for the protest to go ahead has been granted, under some conditions, by the local Parades Commission which rules on contentious marching issues.
Extra police are expected to be in place for the event, which is regarded as the first serious parading dispute to break out in the city in recent years.
The Ministry of Defence has declined to respond to republican criticisms. Unionist politicians have been strongly supportive of the march.
While Unionists and Sinn Fein are in government together, the failure to resolve the issue of the parade by negotiation is seen as another sign of their deteriorating relationship.
Yesterday a number of organisations representing people whose relatives were killed by the Army during the Troubles appealed for the march to be called off. Clara Reilly, a campaigner against the use of plastic bullets, said the event should be held 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."
The Sinn Fein MEP Bairbre de Brun said: "This parade is insensitive, rash and completely unnecessary. To date the MoD has been invisible on this contentious and divisive march, failing to put up any spokespeople or address the wider public concerns."
Sinn Fein said that its protest would be "dignified and peaceful". Another republican splinter group has also announced plans for a demonstration on the day.
Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson, accused Sinn Fein of acting recklessly and irresponsibly by bringing people on to the streets.
He added: "I just believe that people 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.
"And I just don't think that, in the new society that we are trying to create in Northern Ireland, that was a sensible step to take and I don't think it can be justified."