Alasdair McDonnell goes to ground over SDLP’s Newry park decision

Raymond McCreesh Park
Raymond McCreesh Park

More than a week after the SDLP’s U-turn over naming a play park after an IRA man linked to the Kingsmills massacre, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell is refusing to discuss the issue.

The South Belfast MP has made no public comment since last Wednesday’s Newry and Mourne Council vote on retaining the name ‘Raymond McCreesh Park’.

Eight SDLP councillors did not show up for the vote, with the party’s group leader on the council, Michael Carr, instead going to his golf club for the night.

That came despite Dr McDonnell’s public commitment last year to ensure that the McCreesh name was removed.

On Wednesday, the News Letter phoned Dr McDonnell who said he was in a meeting and suggested we speak to the party press office. After following that advice, a press officer promised to ask the leader to return the call.

We again left messages with Dr McDonnell and contacted two press officers multiple times on Thursday and on Friday, without any response from the SDLP leader.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson called on the SDLP leader to stop “avoiding the media” over the issue.

He said: “We have not had a valid explanation of why these eight councillors failed to attend this vote. I can understand if one or two were absent due to sickness, but for eight not to attend perhaps indicates a clear intention to avoid the vote and defy their leader.”

Mr Dickson said that Dr McDonnell’s apology for the SDLP’s past support for the McCreesh name was “hollow” and “totally meaningless”.

DUP MLA Jonathan Bell said that the SDLP stance was “not only shambolic, but deeply insulting to victims of terrorism and the wider community”.

“Alasdair McDonnell’s silence is indicative of a party which cannot even decide whether it supports a memorial to a terrorist and a criminal or not,” he said.

Meanwhile, a Newry SDLP councillor who signed a petition in support of the McCreesh name has apologised for doing so.

Cllr Kate Loughran was quoted in Friday’s News Letter as supporting the name because she knew the McCreesh family.

But in a statement issued via the SDLP press office on Friday morning, Cllr Loughran said: “I want to apologise unreservedly for the upset I have caused by my personal decision in signing [a petition to keep the name].

“My implicit support for the retention of the name is contrary to SDLP policy which opposes the naming of public spaces after anyone involved in paramilitary or state violence. I should not have signed the response.

“During discussions regarding this matter with the leadership of the party I was reminded very clearly of the hurt and upset caused, particularly to victims and their families as a result of the decision to retain the name of McCreesh Park. I am truly sorry if my actions have added to that distress.”

Meanwhile, unionist councillors on the incoming Newry, Mourne and Down District Council have united to oppose its new ‘Irish first’ language policy, which this week was voted in by the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

DUP group leader Garth Craig said there was already an under-representation of Protestants on the new council’s workforce and “if this decision is allowed to stand then it would exacerbate that unacceptable situation”.

UUP group leader David Taylor said: “The manner in which nationalist councillors have tried to steam roller this decision without fulfilling legal requirements demonstrates this is an attempt to domineer and lord it over a vulnerable minority.”