The Equality Commission has told Newry and Mourne District Council that its decision to name a children’s playground after a prominent IRA member was “a breach” of its equality commitments.
The council finalised its decision to name the playground after Raymond McCreesh in December 2012, a decision seemingly more controversial because Belfast City Council voted to stop flying the Union Flag daily on the same night, prompting the Province-wide flag protests.
Unionists strongly objected to the playground being named after Mr McCreesh – one of three IRA men arrested in 1976 with an Armalite used in the Kingsmills massacre. He died on hunger strike in 1981.
The Equality Commission investigated the playground name and this week sent its draft report to the council.
The report said that after repeated commission letters in 2008, the council sought legal advice which concluded that the naming was “acting in a manner which is contrary to its own equality scheme”.
The commission added that while some people thought the name was solely a matter for immediate neighbours, “public spaces should be comfortable for everyone to walk in whether they live in the immediate area or not”.
It added that “the play park name presents a significant chill factor for the use of a council-run play park by families of a Protestant/unionist background”.
The report found that the name of the play park “has been the subject of much public discussion in the context of good relations and a shared future [and] is indicative of the potential to be damaging to good relations in the Newry and Mourne District Council area and beyond”.
The commission found that “in the end the decision making came down to party political voting” but added that councillors “cannot approach decision-making in a biased way, with a closed mind and without impartial consideration of all the relevant issues”.
It added that “little consideration” appears to have been given by councillors to reverting to the original name – Patrick Street Play Park – which indicates that the exercise was “focused more on process than on the substance of the impact on the Protestant/unionist community of naming a publicly-owned and run facility after such a controversial figure”.
The initial process of naming it after Mr McCreesh did not meet the council’s own Equality Scheme.
“This appears to have been more focused on process and on maintaining the name of the play park than on paying due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and...good relations. There is little evidence that the duty was exercised in substance with rigour and with an open mind in the decision-making process.”
The commission concluded that there had been “a breach of the council’s 2012 Equality Scheme commitment” and recommended that the council review the naming decision and its related policy within 12 months.
The Equality Commission told the News Letter yesterday that its investigation will not be complete until it considers any points made by the council regarding the draft report, therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.
The council too said it was a draft report and declined to comment.
SDLP councillor Michael Carr said the report had to be brought to council before comment could be made.
Sinn Fein councillor Charlie Casey said the report had some inaccuracies and that a response would be made to the commission after it had been brought to council.
But DUP councillor William Burns said the findings “are what unionists said from the outset – it was wrong to name this children’s playground after an IRA man”.
He added: “Unionists will be backing the Equality Commission to see that the council does the right thing for all the people of Newry and Mourne.”
UKIP councillor Henry Reilly agreed with the commission finding and urged the council to “look at this again in a more objective fashion”.