Photographs showing children dressed as IRA terrorists and brandishing weapons provoked fury among victims' groups in Northern Ireland yesterday and prompted investigations by the police, the Children's Commissioner and the European Union.
The controversy involves a community centre in South Armagh that has received millions of pounds from the European Union, including funds intended to promote peace and social cohesion.
Describing itself as "the jewel in the crown of South Armagh tourism", the Ti Chulainn Centre, near Mullaghbawn, hosted a youth event organised by Sinn Fein at which scores of children listened to talks by former IRA terrorists.
Racks of sub-machineguns, rifles, handguns, mounted machineguns, a rocket launcher and even a bazooka were on show in the centre, and children were photographed holding AK-47s, rifles and handguns.
It is not known if the weapons were replicas or had escaped the decommissioning process.
The pictures, entitled "North Armagh Martyrs in South Armagh", were posted online. One, showing a boy cradling an AK-47 and dressed in combat uniform, black beret, sunglasses and leather gloves, is captioned "IRA dude".
The discovery of the photos comes just months after the centre was criticised for using EU money to fund tours promoting the "proud tradition of resisting British rule in Ireland".
The pictures came to light last week after the father of a boy at the event contacted the terrorist victims' group Families Acting for Innocent Relatives (Fair).
William Frazer, from Fair, said: "The son asked his father if he could join Sinn Fein Youth. I believe they had a heated discussion and, during this, the man discovered the photos on Facebook. He was distraught and was determined to make sure that no other child should face the same pressure. He did not feel comfortable going to the police and couldn't approach Sinn Fein, so he approached me. He told me, 'You need to try and stop this. They are poisoning those kids and filling them with hate'."
Dominic Bradley, the SDLP member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Newry and Armagh, condemned the "elaborate glorification of violence and Provo gunmen involving young children".
Barrie Halliday, Newry and Armagh Assembly candidate for Traditional Unionist Voice in the May elections, said: "We're constantly being told to forget the past, as Northern Ireland has moved into a new era. These disgusting photographs show that to be lies."
Patricia Lewsley, Northern Ireland's Children's Commissioner, promised to investigate the incident. "My job is to hold government and organisations to account over their actions," she said.
The images were taken during a weekend to commemorate fallen IRA members. Republicans marched through Mullaghbawn on Sunday 3 October last year to the Ti Chulainn centre, where a monument in memory of IRA men on the "South Armagh Roll of Honour" was unveiled.
The IoS has discovered that the march was not registered with the Parades Commission. Yesterday the Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed that it had opened an investigation. In addition the Special EU Programmes Body, which has given grants to the centre from an EU Peace programme, is to look into the photographs.
Neither the Ti Chulainn centre nor Sinn Fein responded to requests for comment.
The controversy comes as the British government is about to stop favouring Catholic recruits to the Northern Ireland police force over Protestants, ending a decade-old affirmative action policy undertaken as part of the peace process.