The Government is throwing £10m of public cash at a project to help paramilitary gangs in areas ravaged by recent riots 'transition' into community groups.
The massive spend, which has been branded "incredible" by politicians, was signed off by the Executive Office last week.
Schemes supported by loyalists and republicans in Belfast (right), Derry and Carrickfergus - which bore the brunt of the past seven days of trouble - will receive millions of pounds in funding. Several of these involve former UVF and IRA prisoners.
The core objective of the £10m Communities in Transition (CIT) cash injection is to end paramilitarism, but serious questions are being asked of its effectiveness in light of the recent violence.
One of its other key goals is to "provide support and legitimate alternatives to all ex-prisoners/former combatants to reintegrate into society".
Around £12m has already been spent on phase on of the project, which will cost taxpayers £22m in total by the time phase two ends in 2024.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said: "Twenty-three years on from the Belfast Agreement, it is quite incredible that we as a society are trying to bring about the end of these groups."
An Executive Office spokeswoman confirmed: "A budget of £10m has been allocated for the next three years as an initial contribution to the Communities in Transition initiative, which will run until March 2024. A range of phase on projects has already been extended to June 30, 2021. It is the intention of the Executive Office that phase two of the programme will commence from July 1, 2021."
Despite running for three years, the multimillion-pound project was unable to prevent the past week of rioting, which has been described by police as the worst to occur in Northern Ireland in a decade.
UVF leader Winkie Irvine, who is involved in the initiative, was on Belfast's Shankill Road last Wednesday trying to ease tensions after a bus was set on fire. However, his pleas for calm were rejected.
The same occurred on the nationalist Springfield Road on Wednesday night, where rioting nationalist youths ignored similar calls from prominent IRA ex-prisoners like Sean 'Spike' Murray.
Questions are now being asked of the merits of the £22m CIT scheme given its inability to prevent violence or convince paramilitary gangs to 'transition' away from crime.
UDA and UVF members remain heavily involved in drug dealing and racketeering, while some were seen to be openly encouraging recent rioting, although both groups deny having an organisational role.
This is something recognised by Doug Beattie, who added: "Too many communities are blighted by the scourge and presence of so-called paramilitary groups which exercise coercive control and engage in all manner of criminal behaviour.
"We must ensure that scarce public money is spent in the right areas on the right projects, which will genuinely help to build up communities and those that live there.
"Great care must be taken to ensure funding is not allowed to go to the very groups and individuals who are the cause of much of this misery and deprivation."
The areas in which the latest round of £10m government cash will be pumped are west and east Belfast, the New Lodge and Ardoyne districts in the north of the city and the Shankill Road.
Other places to receive funding include housing estates in Derry, Bangor, Carrickfergus and Larne and Lurgan. Each have been blighted by paramilitaries with several the scene for recent rioting. The CIT cash is managed by the Co-Operation Ireland charity to groups which tender for specific contracts.
CRJ Ireland and NI Alternatives, which involve former IRA and UVF prisoners, have been tasked with rolling out restorative justice schemes in all of the selected areas.
It must be stressed that there are groups involved in other CIT projects which have no paramilitary links.
Senior civil servants who spoke to Sunday Life concede that the optics around spending £10m on helping paramilitaries 'transition' in the same week of intense sectarian rioting are "terrible".
"The way the public will view this is that we are giving paramilitaries money to go away, or at the very least to keep them quiet. It's terrible timing," said an insider.
"People will also rightly ask the question 'is this money well spent?' Because if it has been, surely the rioting could have been prevented by those stakeholders in receipt of the funding. After all, their basic requirement is to help paramilitaries transition away from criminality.
"The worry we have now is that the organisations we are funding no longer have the influence they once had, and if that's the case, why bother throwing another £10m at them?"
The death of Prince Philip on Friday brought a temporary halt to most loyalist protests which resulted in the rioting. However, there were sectarian clashes later that evening on the Tigers Bay/New Lodge interface in north Belfast and on the Atlantic Road in Coleraine, where rioters threw seven petrol bombs at police.
Officers were pelted with petrol bombs, bricks and other items in the Tigers Bay area and bins were set alight in the middle of the road. A car was also burned. Stones were thrown at police in the nearby New Lodge area.
Three male teenagers, all aged 14 years old, were arrested during the disorder and they have all been released pending further inquiries.
As a result of the disorder on North Queen Street, 14 officers were injured, bringing the total number of officers injured during recent disorder to 88.
Chief Inspector Darren Fox said: "These were disgraceful scenes, which lasted until approximately 1am, that unfolded on the streets of our city last night. This was reckless and dangerous criminal behaviour which resulted in a number of our officers sustaining injury. Thankfully, most of these injuries are not serious. However, a male officer was knocked unconscious and required hospital treatment. As you can imagine, none of our officers go out expecting to be attacked in this way.
"Again, we reiterate our message that this shameful and senseless behaviour is achieving nothing other than wrecking local communities. Residents in these areas, or indeed anywhere, do not want or deserve to experience the fear many of them will have felt in recent nights.
"I am appealing to all those with influence to help bring this violence to an end and, to parents, guardians and community leaders, we ask that you use your influence to ensure we do not see a repeat of such disorder.
"The community can be reassured we will continue to work to keep people safe, and an investigation is underway and evidence gathered will now be reviewed and those identified will face the full rigour of the law."
The Loyalist Community Council (LCC) - an umbrella group which includes UVF and UDA leaders - has called for calm. It has also insisted that none of its associated organisations "have been involved either directly or indirectly in the violence witnessed in recent days".