The North’s Minister for Justice has condemned the “chilling” threat from loyalist paramilitaries that Irish Government Ministers and officials are no longer welcome in the region.
Speaking in the Stormont Assembly on Monday, Naomi Long said the remarks last week by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella group representing the views of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando – were "remarkable".
“I absolutely condemn such remarks,” the Alliance leader said.
"I believe they create a chilling and unhelpful atmosphere and I think that such threats, however thinly veiled, have no place in Northern Ireland and never have had."
Ms Long said it is important to recognise that Irish Government Ministers have an “important role to play” in cross-Border co-operation.
They are also members of the British-Irish Council, which “is an important part of the work we do as Executive ministers”, she added.
“It is frankly to me remarkable that an unelected group would dare to suggest that elected representatives, either from this jurisdiction or any other, are unwelcome here,” said Ms Long.
“The only thing that is unwelcome in Northern Ireland is continued paramilitary influence on our communities.”
Ms Long said she agreed with SDLP Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone that some organisations represented by the LCC had been described by PSNI chief constables as “organised crime groups”.
“Yes, that is the case, and we know paramilitary gangs exploit and harm people,” she added.
“They prey on the most vulnerable in our society. They may wish to portray themselves as defenders of their community, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Ms Long said there is an onus on all political leaders to ensure those groups are not legitimised, and urged a collaborative approach to tackle the “enduring and pervasive nature of paramilitarism and organised crime structures”.
Following Edwin Poots’s resignation as DUP leader last week amid internal party fury over his decision to nominate a First Minister after the UK government committed to introducing Irish language legislation, the LCC urged whoever becomes his successor to collapse powersharing if necessary to “stop the constant flow of concessions to Sinn Féin”.
The LCC also accused the Irish Government of misleading the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol.
"The continued denials and insulting commentary from the Irish Government proves the extent to which they misled European leaders with regard to the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and the guarantees for both communities contained within the Belfast Agreement," it said.
“Until they accept and repair the damage they have created, Irish Government Ministers and officials are no longer welcome in Northern Ireland.”
Speaking on Radio Ulster on Monday, LCC spokesman David Campbell said Mr Poots should have "simply walked out" of talks with British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis when the latter said Westminster would pass Irish language legislation if it wasn't passed by Stormont.
Mr Campbell described the move by the British government as “clearly a gross insult not just to [Mr Poots] as DUP leader but to unionism as a whole”.
On the expectation of DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson taking over as party leader, Mr Campbell said he must "end the concession train" to win back votes, but he was facing an "uphill struggle".
Mr Campbell said “maximum leverage” should be exercised “by pulling down the institutions unless there is movement on the protocol and Irish language”.
“I have spoken to [Mr Donaldson] at length and I am convinced he is on exactly the same page, that the protocol needs to go in its current form and if anything replaces it, it has to be consistent with the consent principles of the Belfast Agreement to satisfy both communities here,” he said.
"We can't have a protocol that destroys our position within the United Kingdom, and that is the foremost responsibility of any unionist leader, protecting Northern Ireland's position within the union."