Sinn Féin First Minister Martin McGuinness has challenged unionists to confront the paramilitary UVF in east Belfast, who he accused of being closely linked to the anti-Catholic Orange Order.
He was speaking out amid increasing violence by the loyalist organisation, including the shooting of a woman six times last week in an apparent revenge attack.
Mr McGuinness said that had republicans been involved in the gun attack on 24-year-old Jemma McGrath last Wednesday there would not have been silence from unionist ranks in the assembly.
Citing his own condemnation of republicans in the past, he said there was a need to “stand by the agreements that we have made”.
“It is about the commitment of all of us to face down violent extremists, whether they be so-called dissident republicans or extreme loyalists,” Mr McGuinness said.
“That is the test for this assembly and that is the test for this executive and I think thus far serious questions have to be asked about the commitment to stand by the PSNI.”
Mr McGuinness again said the Orange Order and the PUP (Progressive Unionist Party) were “indistinguishable” from the UVF in north Belfast.
In response, an Orange Order spokesman rejected the comments. He said were a “cynical attempt to increase tensions”. The PUP claimed the “unity of purpose” among unionists over flags and parades had “unnerved” Sinn Féin.
But links between the organisations appeared to be in evidence again this week as masked paramilitaries attempted to march into a nationalist area of north Belfast to ‘complete’ a July 12th Orange Order parade.
Repeated attempts to stage a sectarian parade through Ardoyne and other nationalist areas has been refused by the Parades Commission since the summer.
Members of all three organisations were also busy last weekend when they joined thousands of other hardline unionists and loyalists to mark the founding of the UVF in west Belfast.
Last weekend the Orange Order again sought permission to allow a loyalist parade through Ardoyne this Saturday -- as a precondition for future talks. But this was again refused by the Parades Commission.
North Belfast Sinn Féin assembly member Gerry Kelly said the Orange Order’s so-called ‘Twaddell initiative’ -- named after the ten-week old loyalist encampment at the interface between the two communities -- was an attempt to undermine the Parades Commission.
“The Orange Order has announced its intentions through the media without discussing things with or providing prior notification... If they really wanted to assist community relations or the Haass process an initiative might be to move their protest off the interface at Twaddell,” he said.
“What needs to happen is direct dialogue, without preconditions in place, between the local residents and the Orange Order.”
The Greater Ardoyne Residents’ Collective also denounced the idea “as there is nothing cultural or religious about sectarian marchers demanding to coat-trail through our community where they are clearly not welcome,” they said.
“Any attempt to force them upon greater Ardoyne will be resisted by any means necessary.”