Pastor slams playground use for ‘sectarian politics’

The Hobby Horse Playgroups playground is used by children from both the Shankill and Falls communities in west Belfast.

The Hobby Horse Playgroups playground is used by children from both the Shankill and Falls communities in west Belfast.

A new playground on the west Belfast peace-line used by both sides of the community is an example to those naming a Newry play park after an IRA man, a pastor has said.

The new facility is part of Hobby Horse Playgroup on Northumberland Street, which will formally open on Monday.

The group is a community outreach for the New Life City Church complex, which is led by Pastor Jack McKee.

“At present the playgroup caters for 24 children in the mornings and up to a dozen children with special needs in the afternoon,” he told the News Letter. “A significant proportion come from both sides of the peace line.”

On Monday it will be officially dedicated to the memory of Madison Bothwell, a former child member who tragically died in a house fire.

Asked by the News Letter about the ongoing legal challenge against the Equality Commission and Newry Mourne and Down Council over a council playground in Newry named after IRA man Raymond McCreesh, Pastor McKee said: “It is unfortunate that people would use a playground for children to promote sectarian politics, even if it is done in the memory of someone who lost their life for their political objectives,” he said.

“My belief is that anything done for children should be a-political.”

The pastor says several hundred people from both sides of the community attend the associated church he leads, also on the peace line, every week.

“We not only have people from both sides of the community but also former paramilitaries from both sides of the conflict building friendships.

“I was sitting in our coffee shop the other day with five other men when I realised what our backgrounds were. There was me, former UDR, and ex-members of the RUC, PIRA, UFF, UDA and UVF.

“The government is desperate for this sort of thing to take place in society, but although we do receive some statutory funding, we are struggling financially. However if we were an ex-prisoner group I believe we would not be having any financial problems.”

Two of their playgroup jobs are under threat due to state cutbacks, he said.

Sinn Fein responded that Raymond McCreesh is held “in high regard” by people of the Ballybot area of Newry, where he previously lived. The “overwhelming majority” of residents voted three times to name the park after him.

“Raymond McCreesh and his comrades who died on hunger strike are held in the highest esteem by many, both in Ireland and around the world,” he added.