SDLP sides with SF in IRA playground vote

Raymond McCreesh Park on Patrick Street in Newry. Picture: Mark Pearce
Raymond McCreesh Park on Patrick Street in Newry. Picture: Mark Pearce

Unionists have stormed out of Newry Mourne and Down District Council chamber after the SDLP sided with Sinn Fein to ensure a Newry playground remains named after an IRA gunman.

Unionists in the majority nationalist council said they had grown frustrated with what they saw as the lack of progress in resolving the matter after a legal challenge in the High Court was put on hold in December to give the local authority a chance to address the issue.

The Equality Commission had directed the council to take a fresh vote on the name, citing lack of transparency.

Ahead of the meeting, which took place in Downpatrick on Monday night, unionists had privately expressed hope that the SDLP would back their motion to revert to the original park name.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had raised their hopes with a conference speech on Saturday which emphasised reaching out to unionists, plus the fact that delegates passed an amendment against naming public spaces after men of violence.

However, in the end SDLP group leader Gary Stokes seconded a Sinn Fein motion to postpone any decision until the council has considered passing the playground into community hands, a move he conceded in December could see it remain ‘Raymond McCreesh Park’ in perpetuity.

Independent unionist councillor Henry Reilly bellowed as he led unionists out: “This is a republican council for republicans.”

The Alliance Party sided with the DUP, UUP and Mr Reilly in the vote to revert to the original name.

However, it fell under the Sinn Fein-SDLP amendment 24 votes to 10, with three abstentions.

Sitting in the public gallery was Colin Worton. Raymond McCreesh was arrested with a weapon used in the murder of his brother, Kenneth, several months after his death in the 1976 Kingsmills massacre. And Colin’s mother Bea, 89, has brought the legal challenge against the playground name.

Proposing the motion, Mr Reilly said there was a major memorial to Raymond McCreesh in his home village and an annual parade in his name, neither of which unionists had any interest in challenging.

Mr Reilly also said that the High Court had given the council until 9 April to resolve the name, or Mrs Worton’s legal challenge would come before the court again.

He said everyone in society should feel free to use a council playground but that the name deeply hurts victims of terrorism.

“Their feelings seem to not count and this council can just ignore them and pretend they do not exist,” he said.

But council chief executive Liam Hannaway countered that the High Court had asked the council to review the land use – not vote on the name – and that it had set no firm deadline for the process.

UUP councillor David Taylor seconded the motion saying his thoughts were “first and foremost with the victims of terrorism”. The entire issue has had a huge impact on victims of terrorism, community relations and the minority unionist community in the council area, he said.

DUP councillor William Walker begged the SDLP to support the motion, citing their party’s leader’s weekend speech, which he said “urged closer working relations with everyone, including our unionist neighbours”.

Andrew McMurray (Alliance) said they too supported the motion as it was consistent with party policy on public spaces.

But defending his party’s decision not to change the name, Mr Stokes acknowledged that the High Court had given the council some four months to make a decision. However, he added that “in the public sector that timescale is only days”.

He added that “there will be an attempt to portray us as anti-unionist” but he objected in that his mother is unionist and that he recently campaigned for a unionist parade in Newry.

Opposing the motion, independent councillor Jarlath Tinnelly said there will never be an agreed narrative on the past and that republicans found it necessary to stand up to “a sectarian society”. While unionists honour their war dead at the cenotaph each year, he said, republicans honour men like Raymond McCreesh, who died on hunger strike in 1981.

However, DUP councillor Glyn Hanna objected that the names on the cenotaph had secured Mr Tinnelly’s democratic freedoms, while Mr Reilly noted that some war memorials had more Catholic names than Protestant ones.