Unionist condemnation of the use of a replica machine gun during a republican commemoration ceremony has pointed up the hypocrisy of the current debate on weapons decommissioning.
Democratic Unionist Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson said the march in honour of the H-block hunger strikers had been no excuse to “parade” the plastic item.
Hundreds of republicans in Derry were commemorating the 10 hunger strikers who died in Long Kesh prison in 1981.
It was the first time the annual event had been held outside Belfast.
“I think it is wholly inappropriate that people should display any kind of weaponry, whether it is replica or not,” said Mr Donaldson.
Sinn Féin defended the marchers’ decision to parade the replica weapon and said its presence had a historical significance.
The costume weapon was a prop for the historical re-enactment of the 1957 Brookborough Raid, one in a series of attacks mounted by the IRA in the early phase of the Border Campaign of 1956-62.
A party spokesman said: “Jeffrey Donaldson should be more concerned about removing real weapons from unionist paramilitaries rather than criticising an historical commemoration committee for using replica weapons.
“His comments are in stark contrast to his reaction when more than 100 armed loyalist paramilitaries attacked nationalists during a bonfire in Coleraine on August 9.”
About 300 people marched from the Rosemount factory in Derry to the republican monument in the City Cemetery yesterday.
A large-scale security operation was mounted by the PSNI, as the parade marched along a route that took in the houses where wakes had been held for hunger strikers Patsy O’Hara and Michael Devine.
Wreaths were laid by the INLA, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the family of Patsy O’Hara, the 32 Country Sovereignty Movement and Oglaigh na hEireann.
Five of the hunger strikers came from Derry -- Patsy O’Hara and Michael Devine lived in the city and Francis Hughes, Tom McElwee and Kevin Lynch came from the county.
PRAISE FOR FAMILIES
Speaking at the the rally, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams praised Derry’s Bloody Sunday families for their persistence in trying to expose British State violence.
Mr Adams said that many families and communities had campaigned for truth about British state violence and collusion in recent years, including the Ballymurphy Massacre committee in his own area.
He said: “They are not alone. Countless hundreds of other families are similarly demanding truth.
“I want to commend all those families for their commitment and persistence. In particular I want to salute the Bloody Sunday families for the great example they gave to the rest of us,” added the party leader.
Mr Adams also said that Sinn Féin would continue to argue for a united Ireland and not allow unionists to block progress in the Stormont Assembly.
“The message to unionism is clear - if unionists want to exercise power; if they want an Assembly, and an Executive, taking meaningful decisions, then there is a price to be paid - and that price is sharing power with republicans in a partnership government of equals. Anything less is not acceptable and anything less will not work.”
The father of IRA Hunger Striker Francis Hughes has “politely declined” traditional best wishes from Queen Elizabeth on his 100th birthday.
Mr Hughes father had been contacted by Buckingham Palace earlier this month to inquire about whether he would accept a telegram from the Queen to mark his birthday. The telegram is offered to every British citizen who reaches the age of 100.
Sinn Féin First Minister Martin McGuinness paid tribute to the veteran republican.
“During very difficult and dangerous times Joe and his late wife Maggie stepped forward at great personal loss to themselves and their family,” he said.
“He is a proud and strong Irishman and a solid republican who stood firmly behind his son as Francis and his comrades faced down Margaret Thatcher and her criminalisation policy in Long Kesh in 1981.”
The families of four Derry men held in custody without trial have accused local Sinn Féin activists of removing political slogans in support of the men minutes ahead of the march.
A sister of Gary Donnelly, who has spent the last five months in jail in Dublin awaiting trial, challenged Sinn Féin to explain why the graffiti was removed.
“What gives these people the right to decide which graffiti can stay or go. Why did they not want people to see it?” Ms Donnelly asked. “It appears Sinn Féin wants our family silenced and they are using any tactic they can to get us to go away.”
A relative of Michael Gallagher, another of those in jail, said: “They marched on Sunday with their anti-internment and ‘the struggle goes on’ banners but yet they actively removed slogans calling for the support of jailed republicans.
“These slogans are as valid as the anti-internment graffiti of 30 years ago - they are the struggle continued.”
Sinn Féin has denied any involvement in removing the graffiti.