The SDLP leadership has warned party councillors in Newry that if the row over an ‘IRA playground’ is not resolved soon, then they should bring forward their own motion to rename it.
The news comes as signs of division emerge from within the party over the naming of the Newry playground after IRA man Raymond McCreesh.
Furious unionists stormed out of the council chamber in Downpatrick on Monday night after SDLP councillors refused to back their motion to restore the park’s original name.
Instead SDLP councillors seconded a Sinn Fein amendment to proceed with a council process which SDLP group leader Gary Stokes says will likely see the park retain the McCreesh name permanently after being ‘de-listed’ into community ownership.
However, a party spokeswoman indicated that the leadership’s patience is wearing thin.
“The SDLP leadership is crystal clear that this naming was wrong and has caused hurt to victims,” she said.
“The councillors are in no doubt from the leadership that if the matter is not resolved in coming weeks via the process parties agreed to, then they should bring a motion to rename.
“The SDLP does not support the naming of public spaces after those involved in the violence of the past,” she told the News Letter.
The SDLP party conference at the weekend unanimously passed a motion which opposed the naming of any public space after men of violence, she noted.
“This children’s play park should never have been named in this way.”
She also claimed that a cross-party consensus had been reached in the council to “de-list” the park.
“The councillors’ assessment of the actions by the DUP last night [Monday] was that this was political opportunism and they decided to vote to stick with the agreed process to resolve the issue once and for all,” she added.
A legal challenge of the name was adjourned in December pending the outcome of the council de-listing process, with the court advised that it should be resolved by April 9.
However, frustrated unionists, believing no progress was being made, tried to force the issue with Monday’s vote.
The outcome highlighted apparent divisions within the SDLP over the matter; three councillors abstained and MLA Claire Hanna tweeted her frustration afterwards.
“Particularly in [the] week reflecting on the [Belfast] Agreement & celebrating the values in it, [I was] saddened by the vote in Newry,” she said. “This wasn’t a time for whataboutery & rushing to repeat mistakes of the past. It was & is wrong to name a kids playground for anyone linked to Kingsmill #reconciliation”.
SDLP MLA Pat Catney echoed her comments.
“I cannot agree with the naming of public spaces after those who were involved with violence,” he tweeted.
“The agreement should allow us to build a united community – not mark out territory.”
McCreesh was arrested with a weapon used in the Kingsmills massacre several months after the sectarian IRA atrocity in 1976.
UUP MLA Robbie Butler observed that the SDLP councillors “seemingly ignored central party direction on the McCreesh play park” in Monday’s vote.
It is understood that some within the party are now asking how the councillors’ voting record on Monday appeared to be at such variance with the motion passed unanimously at Saturday’s party conference.
One source said a senior party figure phoned councillors on Monday evening to enforce the new policy, but that the vote had already taken place.
A party spokeswoman strongly denied this, but declined to say whether the councillors had defied central party direction.
Senior SDLP party figures who previously opposed their Newry and Mourne councillors’ support for the McCreesh Park name have included then party leader Alasdair McDonnell, then South Down MP Margaret Ritchie and former MLA Alban Maginnis.
Meanwhile, Newry UUP councillor David Taylor has expressed “deep anger and disappointment” over Monday night’s vote.
“This latest snub is a further blow to innocent victims of republican violence who have already had to endure significant hurt and pain as a consequence of this ongoing issue,” he said.
Newry & Armagh DUP MLA William Irwin also slammed the SDLP for refusing to support the motion.
“This was yet another opportunity in what has been a very long series of opportunities for the SDLP in Newry, Mourne & Down District Council to prove they respect the memory of the innocent victims of the IRA’s brutal terrorist campaign of murder,” he said.