The SDLP was not caught out by the recent meeting to vote through the Raymond McCreesh Park name – as it has claimed – but actually requested the meeting which discussed the issue and removed a mechanism for overturning its decision, the News Letter has learnt.
The party has given the impression that it was not expecting a decision on the park name to be taken at the meeting a fortnight ago, with leader Alasdair McDonnell explaining the absence of SDLP councillors from the meeting in the context of an expectation that the issue would be “deferred”.
When asked on Sunday why so many of his councillors failed to show up, Dr McDonnell told the News Letter: “I think they thought that the issue would be deferred and it wasn’t deferred because Sinn Fein and others were quite happy to make a meal out of this.”
But Sinn Fein has now alleged that the SDLP knew exactly what was going on – before eight of its nine councillors failed to attend the meeting, with SDLP group leader Michael Carr instead going to his golf club.
When contacted by the News Letter yesterday, the Sinn Fein leader on the council, Mickey Ruane, said: “They [the SDLP] requested the meeting and asked that it be given full powers.”
He added that it had been the “full understanding” of everyone on the council that the meeting was “a one-off meeting on a one-off issue”.
The Sinn Fein councillor said that the SDLP’s request for the meeting – and their vote in support of holding it – was recorded in council minutes.
When asked if the issue could come back before the council before it is dissolved at the end of March, Mr Ruane said that it “possibly” could as there will be two more monthly meetings before April.
On Wednesday night Mr Carr could not be contacted. But in a statement, the SDLP said that its councillors “responded to a proposal for a special meeting of the council to receive legal opinion and assess the response to the public consultation of the naming of McCreesh Park”.
It added: “SDLP Newry and Mourne councillors believe that it would have been best to defer the decision to give the council time to fully consider the opinion they received.
“This was not possible and the councillors will work with the party to rectify the decision as soon as possible.”
However, the minutes of Newry and Mourne council’s Staff and Policy/Equality Committee meeting of Monday, January 19, prove that rather than “responding to a proposal”, the SDLP councillors requested the meeting which eight of them then declined to attend.
In a section about the naming of the park, the minutes record: “Councillor Carr [SDLP] proposed and Councillor McArdle [SDLP] seconded a proposal that council arrange a Special Meeting of the Staff and Policy/Equality Committee with full plenary powers within a week to 10 days to discuss the consultation on review of Council’s decision to name Raymond McCreesh Park.
“The Press and members of the public would be entitled to attend this meeting.” It was agreed that the meeting would be held in the evening.
An earlier Sinn Fein proposal would have meant that the special meeting’s findings would have had to be ratified later by the full council.
But the SDLP’s insistence that the meeting would have “full plenary powers” removed that potential change to overturn the decisions and meant that there was no opportunity for the party’s councillors, some of whom had previously voted in favour of the McCreesh name, to later vote against the proposal if they missed the special meeting.