Newry and Mourne District Council ignored impassioned pleas from unionists on Monday and named a children’s playground after an IRA gunman who was arrested with a weapon used in the Kingsmills massacre.
In a full council meeting 20 councillors voted to keep the Patrick Street playground in Newry named after Raymond McCreesh, who was linked to the Kingsmills massacre by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) last year.
Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors, along with two independents, voted in favour of naming the playground after him, while five unionist councillors voted against. One SDLP councillor, Frank Feely, abstained.
UUP councillor David Taylor told councillors: “It will cause a lot of hurt in the unionist community and all the more disappointment for those who have lost loved ones in south Armagh and across the district.”
He added that it would “cause considerable harm to community relations in Newry and Mourne”.
DUP councillor Willy Burns said it was “one of the worst decisions the council has ever made” and he challenged nationalist councillors to consider their consciences and “those who had suffered at the hands of the IRA”.
And he noted that the Armalite McCreesh was arrested with had been “placed at some of the worst atrocities in this district”.
Sinn Fein councillor Mickey Ruane said it had not been a decision “taken last week” but had been the subject of community consultation over the past number of years and a public meeting in Newry Arts Centre. The issue had arisen because residents had requested the name change, he said.
SDLP councillor Michael Carr said: “I understand the strong feelings here tonight and the hurt from the unionist community.”
He added: “I felt all along we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.”
The bottom line was that the council had listened to advice from the Equality Commission and others, he said. “In some ways it is the lesser of two evils,” he added.
The council first voted to name the playground after McCreesh in 2001, although 16 per cent of residents opposed the change in a council survey. Unionists appealed to the Equality Commission which called for an equality impact assessment in 2008.
Last month in a council sub-committee, SDLP and Sinn Fein councillors finally decided that naming the park after McCreesh complies with all their legal requirements to “promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different religious beliefs and political opinions”.
Newry and Mourne UKIP councillor Henry Reilly said the internet reaction to the story in recent weeks has been “absolutely ballistic”.
“People are just shocked by the hypocrisy of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, especially with the flags issue in Belfast City Hall,” he said.
Colin Worton, whose brother Kenneth was murdered by the IRA at Kingsmills in 1976, said he recently contacted SDLP MLA Dominic Bradley “to make my feelings known” about the playground name.
“But he has not come back to me. I think the SDLP is embarrassed. Dominic did not want the Kingsmills families to walk along the last route of our loved ones recently because he said it would damage community relations.
“But what is the council’s decision to name this playground after a man involved in my brother’s murder going to do for community relations? It is totally sickening to my family and the Kingsmills families.”
The News Letter told Mr Bradley yesterday what Mr Worton had said but Mr Bradley said he was in a meeting until 9pm and could not comment.
In 1977 Raymond McCreesh was convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms with intent to endanger life and PIRA membership. He died on hunger strike in 1981.
Last year the HET linked him, along with two others, to a string of IRA murders committed with the Armalite he was caught with, including the Kingsmills massacre in 1976. In that attack 10 Protestant workmen were stopped on their way home from work and gunned down by the IRA. An eleventh man survived.
l On Friday sectarian graffiti was scratched into the plaster of a new memorial to the Kingsmills victims at the scene of their murder. Two workmen were threatened. The PSNI has appealed for information on a silver Volkswagen Bora seen in the area around 4pm.