Demand to strip pro-slavery figure’s name off Newry street ‘risks dangerous precedent’

A unionist councillor has said neither he nor his party colleagues will support any effort to strip the name of a pro-slavery figures from pieces of public property in Newry.

By Adam Kula
Tuesday, 9th June 2020, 7:00 am
The statue of John Mitchel in Newry
The statue of John Mitchel in Newry

David Taylor, head of the UUP group on Newry Mourne and Down District Council, said he is against such a drive to rename aspects of the town.

It comes as a petition to rename John Mitchel Place in the city reached 1,000 online supporters yesterday.

Mr Mitchel was an Irish nationalist journalist, born the son of a Presbyterian minister in Co Londonderry in 1815, who went on to advocate for slavery and the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. He died in Newry aged 59.

He had been an outspoken voice against British policy in Ireland, believing the Potato Famine to be a man-made effort at subjugating the island, and went on to be exiled.

But on issues of race, the book ‘Lincoln and the Irish’ by Niall O’Dowd quotes him as saying that black people are “innately inferior... we deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a pecadillo to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by floggingor other needful correction”.

Newry has two roads named for him – John Mitchel Street and John Mitchel Place – and a statue honouring him stands at St Colman’s Park.

The inscription of the statue says: “After 27 years in exile for the sake of Ireland he returned with honour to die among his own people and he rests with his parents in the 1st Presbyterian Old Meeting House Green at Newry.”

There is also a GAA team, the Newry Mitchels, named after him.

The online petition calls him “a proud racist” and demands the renaming of John Mitchel Place – suggesting ‘Pat Jennings Place’ would be a better name (referring to a fellow Newry native and NI footballing legend).

Councillor Taylor, group leader of the UUP (which, with four councillors, is the biggest unionist bloc on the council) told the News Letter: “It’s not something we’re of mind to support at this stage.

“Our priority is getting rid of the name ‘Raymond McCreesh Park’ in Newry.”

This refers to a childrens’ playground named after a dead IRA hunger striker – a still-ongoing saga which dates back several years.

Councillor Taylor added that removing the Mitchel name risks “creating a dangerous precedent”.

He said: “I’d worry people would find other streets and names where they’d find fault with it or have some issue from a historical context.

“You could create a situation where there’d be a domino effect – I think that’s my main concern with it.

“I think the main focus should actually be on conentrating on people’s atrtitudes towards equality for everybody – trying to create a change in mindsets.”

SDLP group leader Pete Byrne told the News Letter he did not want to see any streets named after a racist, adding Mitchel’s views would have been unacceptable in the 19th century, “never mind now”.

Pressed whether he is for or against renaming streets, the GAA club, and removing the statue, he said: “I think that’s over simplistic.”

He suggested a way to address it might be for example to amend the plaque on the statue to reflect his pro-slavery views, instead of “the ripping down of statues”.

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