THE group at the centre of Remembrance Sunday tensions in north Down has claimed it "had as much right as anyone to pay respect".
As previously reported in the News Letter, Bangor MLAs and the Royal British Legion had expressed concern that their annual Remembrance parade could be hijacked by an alleged loyalist paramilitary-linked group which had been refused permission to attend the official service at Ward Park.
The Royal British Legion had dramatically warned it would "walk away" if the group attended on the day.
The march passed without incident, but now the group at the centre of the controversy has hit out at the local council for refusing it permission to attend the main service.
Speaking to the News Letter, vice-chairperson of the North Down Somme Society (NDSS) Jamie Bryson vehemently denied the group has loyalist paramilitary links.
He said: "We have a wide membership. This may include people with loyalist views but it also includes Christians and Catholics. This is in no way a political group."
Formed four years ago, the NDSS has been refused permission to take part in the official parade since its formation.
While it did not attend the official parade, the group carried flags to Ward Park and laid wreaths half an hour before the main Remembrance Day service.
Mr Bryson said: "People there asked us why we weren't involved in the main service and I just couldn't answer them as I don't know."
The NDSS vice-chairman criticised North Down Borough Council over its lack of support for the group.
He said: "We feel the council should support and recognise this group as a legal and legitimate body instead of treating us like lepers.
"They have isolated and completely disregarded the local loyalist community and that's not right.
"The men who died at the Somme did so as much for me as anyone else. I have as much right to be at the service as any councillor.
"We have as much right to pay our respects as anyone. No one has a monopoly on the dead."
The Remembrance Day row broke out following months of tension between local loyalists and North Down Borough Council.
A spokeswoman for North Down Borough Council said the Bangor parade was organised by the Royal British Legion and council provided administrative support only.