The British government was condemned today after announcing it was providing more than £3m (€4.3m) to have paramilitary murals in Northern Ireland painted over.
The SDLP said it beggared belief that tax-payers’ money was being used to pay people to remove something which was illegal and should not be there in the first place.
People should be told to take them down, not paid to, said SDLP Assembly member Alban Maginness.
The British government called the mural removal Re-Imaging and said it was part of a £33m (€47.7m) programme to regenerate disadvantaged loyalist areas which was announced in April.
The bulk of the money for Re-Imaging comes from the £33m, but the British government said it was not simply aimed at loyalist areas.
Culture Minister Maria Eagle said: “The purpose of the Re-Imaging Communities Programme will be to encourage local people and their communities in finding ways of replacing divisive murals and emblems with more positive imagery.”
She added: “New murals and public art will transform parks, housing estates and built-up areas across Northern Ireland, celebrating the aspirations of the whole community and helping people feel part of their own local community.”
Grants of up to £5,000 (€7,222) for small projects and £50,000 (€72,200) for the largest schemes will be available.
In East Belfast two loyalist paramilitary murals have recently been replaced, one by a portrait of local soccer legend George Best and the other by one of Catholic war hero and VC winner James McGuinness.
No taxpayers’ money was provided for them, but they were being held up by ministers as an example of what could be funded.
The minister said: “Investment in the arts makes a very positive impact on building bridges across the community divide.
“Government is creating the right conditions to make this happen through schemes like the one we are launching today.”
But Mr Maginness was furious, saying the murals were designed to intimidate and mark out territory and were illegal.
“That is why today’s announcement beggars belief. People shouldn’t have to be paid to take down paramilitary murals. They should be told to do it,” he said.
The North Belfast MLA said that at a time when special education and health budgets were being slashed, it was impossible to justify the allocation of the funds.
“Many people will fear that this is nothing more than a polite form of extortion.
“The people causing the problem will now be paid to stop causing it.”
Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brun was equally critical and saw the money as being directed at loyalist areas.
She said the party was not opposed to sustainable development and funding for unionist areas.
But she said: “This is the latest in a long line of crude attempts by the British government to portray unionist areas as somehow more disadvantaged than nationalist ones.
“There is disadvantage in both unionist and nationalist working class areas.”