Paramilitary tribute added to publicly funded WW1 memorial garden in Belfast
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been criticised after a World War One memorial garden it paid for was re-imaged with a paramilitary tribute.
The £22,000 memorial garden, in south Belfast's Village area, was built by the NIHE to commemorate the WW1 dead.
Recently however, loyalists have added a memorial stone to Ulster Volunteer Force members killed in the Troubles.
The NIHE said it is trying to reach agreement with the local community to have the paramilitary display removed.
NIHE staff have also been denied access to the garden after the locks they placed on the gates were changed.
The garden was built by the NIHE as a replacement for a previous paramilitary-style UVF memorial that had been removed during housing redevelopment in the Village.
In a statement, a NIHE spokesman said: "The Housing Executive did not provide a UVF memorial. Instead, we provided a garden that reflects the sacrifices of men from south Belfast during the First World War."
The garden was paid from the NIHE's own budget and money provided by European Union peace funding.
The EU fund is designed "to encourage greater levels of social integration in the housing sector" and "help promote the idea of a shared society".
But the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) MLA John Dallat said the scheme will now have the opposite effect.
"I am very disappointed and very angry that public money intended to bring communities together is being spent in a way that promotes division and regenerates paramilitary groups that should have been gotten rid of," Mr Dallat said.
"The UVF memorial stone should be taken away because it dishonours and disfigures the very men the project was intended to honour."
'Whinging and complaining'
However, the NIHE spokesman said: "Great care was taken in consultation with the local community about the design of this garden in order to ensure there would be no paramilitary imagery included. The contract also clearly stipulated this."
"We are disappointed that since its construction, other images have been added to the garden. We did not agree to any additional images.
"We are now trying to reach agreement with the local community to remove the additional images. The lock currently on the garden was not provided by the Housing Executive."
UKIP Belfast City Councillor Bob Stoker, who works in a neighbourhood renewal scheme in the Village area, said: "We are looking at moving on and putting the past behind us.
"We can't go on whinging and complaining at every turn.
"It is in a local area that is not going to give offence to anyone, and I have not heard anyone making an complaints about it," Mr Stoker added.
Alliance councillor Paula Bradshaw said she was "very disappointed" that the paramilitary plaque had been placed in the memorial to those who lost their lives in World War One.
"It is disrespectful to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Great War," she said.
"This should have been a shared commemoration to those who lost their lives from all sides, so it is regrettable that this divisive plaque has been placed in this memorial garden."
A spokesperson for the Housing Executive added: "Issues around expressions of cultural identity and sense of place, which manifest themselves in mural, monuments and flags, are extremely difficult and often dangerous to deal with.
"The Housing Executive has been at the forefront of moving towards more acceptable expressions of cultural identity.
"Over recent years we have been working with others to roll out a successful programme of re-imaging to encourage communities to move away from aggressive expressions of cultural identity to more inclusive, historically accurate and informative depictions of our history.
"Despite the work that we and others have carried out over recent years, many of our existing estates are single identity and segregated."
It is thought there are around 100 memorials - 53 of them republican and 47 loyalist - on NIHE property.
According to the executive, the Village memorial and another at Annadale in south Belfast were the only two of this type paid for and built by the NIHE.
"We have however, provided support for numerous re-imaging projects across Northern Ireland, helping communities to move away from more aggressive expressions of cultural identity," the executive's spokesman said.