IRA play park row has dragged on too long, senior SDLP MLA tell councillors

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, pictured with party leader Colum Eastwood, said she is 'saddened' by actions of  councillors
SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly, pictured with party leader Colum Eastwood, said she is 'saddened' by actions of councillors

SDLP councillors have been accused of using delaying tactics when it comes to addressing the controversial naming of a play park after an IRA man – an issue which one of the party’s senior members says has “dragged on too long”.

In recent days the majority-nationalist Newry, Mourne and Down District Council voted to adopt a Play Park Strategy in response to the ongoing furore, which has dogged the council since 2001.

However, UUP councillor David Taylor said it appears local SDLP councillors are still just trying to “kick this issue down the road”, whilst SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly – the party’s former deputy leader – said it is time the controversy was dealt with, adding that it has “soured” relations with unionists.

The Newry playground is named after hunger striker Raymond McCreesh, who was arrested with a weapon used in the Kingsmills massacre several months after the 1976 atrocity which saw 10 Protestants killed by the IRA.

In December, SDLP councillor Gary Stokes told the News Letter the Play Park Strategy was intended to deal with the issue by transferring the playground to private hands – admitting that this could still see it retaining the McCreesh name, outside of council control.

It is understood the there are serious divisions on the issue within the SDLP, which recently adopted a policy against naming public spaces after people involved in violence; several local councillors also abstain from voting on the matter.

On April 12, the SDLP leadership issued a statement which appeared to be a deadline and ultimatum to councillors to resolve the matter.

It said: “The Newry Mourne and Down councillors are aware that if the Play Park Strategy, which is due to report in two weeks, does not recommend the disposal of McCreesh Park then they will support a motion to rename the park, as per party policy.

“Any SDLP councillor who does not support a party policy automatically faces internal party procedures.”

However, the council formally adopted the Play Park Strategy on May 7 – without taking any stance on the issue of the McCreesh Park name.

Instead, unionist councillors say that nationalists moved in an entirely new direction: to go out to consultation on the possibility of a brand new playground near McCreesh Park.

Mr Taylor said: “This does not deal with the issue of the naming of McCreesh Park.

“To me it is just an attempt by both parties to kick this issue further down the road without making a decision.

“The SDLP councillors were told by their leadership to resolve this issue in a short period of time. The public statements by the leadership don’t seem to be backed up by actions of the party on the ground.”

In response, the SDLP repeated its position that their councillors “are aware that if the disposal of McCreesh Park is not completed then they will support a motion to rename the park, as per party policy”.

It added: “Any SDLP councillor who does not support a party policy automatically faces internal party procedures.”

This time the party did not offer any deadline by which their councillors had to take action.

SDLP policing and justice spokeswoman Dolores Kelly said: “It really saddens me to see the lack of understanding of hurt to our unionist friends and neighbours caused by the naming of McCreesh Park.

“I have no difficulty in saying to the councillors in Newry, whom I greatly respect, to deal with this in a sensitive way as it has dragged on too long and soured too many relationships.”