A leading loyalist figure has warned that any bid to force the removal of paramilitary murals risks making the problem worse, not better.
Jim Wilson was speaking as the News Letter exclusively revealed a long list of Housing Executive properties which are being used to display murals – a great many of them paramilitary-related.
He also voiced scepticism about how well the Housing Executive figures really reflect the true split between loyalist and republican murals.
Whilst the data shows 146 loyalist murals to 43 republican ones, only Housing Executive properties were counted.
Moreover, the agency failed to survey any murals in its South West area, and only did an extremely small survey in South Down.
Mr Wilson suggested that, if a fuller survey was possible, it would reveal the overall numbers to be more balanced.
The east Belfast man describes himself as a 64-year-old former Red Hand Commando internee who is now a community worker.
He has been involved in the creation of a peace mural in inner-east Belfast on a wall which he said would otherwise have had a paramilitary image on it.
It features a poem extolling an end to violence, and bears an image of two children shaking hands (one of whom is modelled on his own nephew).
Mr Wilson was also instrumental in setting up the commemorative flag scheme which encouraged paramilitaries to stop flying their own flags, and instead fly less-contentious green ones bearing key WWI dates – a scheme praised as “hugely successful” by UUP MLA Doug Beattie.
When it comes to the recorded split between republican and loyalist murals, he said he knows “a hell of a lot” in places like republican Poleglass, adding: “I’m not sure you’d be right with the figures... I find it a bit strange it’s as little as that in republican areas, to tell you the truth. I find it hard to believe.”
It was put to him that the numbers nevertheless show a very large number of paramilitary-themed murals remain in place, 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement, to which he replied: “Listen, you’re talking to the converted.”
But he added there is a need to recognise that some people in neighbourhoods where they appear have seen brothers or sons die in pursuit of “what they see as their cause”.
He also said: “One of the problems with it is you can’t just turn round and say to people: ‘look, don’t do that’. If you start ramming it down people’s throats and that there, they’ll start to go against it.
“You’re never ever going to remove them all. Before the Troubles started there was murals all over Belfast walls of King Billy and all sorts of stuff – it’s not something that’s just came about because of the Troubles.”
Asked if there should be punishment for erecting paramilitary murals, he said: “You know as well as I do – this is Northern Ireland. You start and do that, and what you’re going to get [is] dozens and dozens more murals.”