Unionists are planning to overturn a decision by Newry and Mourne District Council to name a children’s playground in the city in honour of an IRA man who was arrested with a weapon used in the Kingsmills massacre.
The playground was first named after Raymond McCreesh in 2001 – he died on hunger strike in 1981. But unionists, a small minority in the council, have raised repeated concerns.
Last year the Equality Commission said the council’s public consultation on the decision had not been transparent and recommended that the council carry out a review.
This week the council voted by 15 votes to four to retain the name; but eight out of nine SDLP councillors were absent – despite their party leader’s insistence last year that the SDLP is opposed to the name.
Unionists said last night that they were determined to fight the decision and are exploring a range of options. The council’s own legal advice is that it is now open to a judicial review.
UUP councillor David Taylor said Sinn Fein had pressed for a vote to retain the name during Wednesday’s meeting.
“We are now seeking an urgent meeting with the Equality Commission and are taking legal advice to carry the issue into the new Newry, Mourne and Down Council on April 1,” he said.
He said that eight out of the nine SDLP councillors on the committee “did not turn up”.
“It is clear that this is having a clear impact on community relations,” he added.
“Council officials said that we must give some form of acknowledgement for the hurt and anger this has caused in the unionist community – but this has not been done.”
He understands that the Equality Commission would prefer the final decision would be taken by Newry and Mourne District Council.
“But we are keen to carry this over to the new super-council which takes affect from April 1 where Sinn Fein do not hold the same majority.”
UKIP councillor Henry Reilly said that unionist members of the new council were meeting to discuss the issue last night.
The new super-council will have eight unionists, 14 Sinn Fein, 14 SDLP and two Alliance councillors and three independents.
“If this goes to a judicial review all the councillors who backed the decision could be surcharged and could lose their seats.”
He noted that Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act requires public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different religious and political views and sexual orientations.
“This is the same legislation that the Equality Commission is using to come down hard on Ashers bakery for refusing to supply a cake with a gay marriage slogan – we will be expecting them to come down equally hard on councillors who decided to name a playground after an IRA man.
“Sinn Fein said that submissions by victims of terrorism to the consultation were either meaningless or fabricated.”
Both he and the SDLP agreed that there were some 250 individual submissions against the name by individual unionists but 2,500 Sinn Fein pro forma letters in support of retaining it.
Sinn Fein councillor Liz Kimmins was certain that the council had followed the Equality Commission requirements, and insisted that the council’s original public consultation in 2001 “fully followed” all legal requirements.
“We did say last night that not everybody is going to be content with this decision and that we understand that there is anger about it,” she said.
She was not sure if the matter could be carried across into the new super-council.
“It would be a waste of time and money to look at this yet again,” she said, noting that the council has repeatedly reviewed the decision since it was first made in 2001.
SDLP councillor Declan McAteer said he did not know if the consultation complied with the Equality Commission recommendations.
“I put my faith in the council officer who carried the consultation out,” he said. “It seems to have been in line with requirements but possibly the Equality Commission itself will be the final arbiter.”
Asked how the SDLP would vote in the new super-council if they had the option of joining with unionists to overturn the Sinn Fein vote, he replied: “I am sure the SDLP would have to wait and see. It may or may not arise.”
The reason he abstained from Wednesday night’s vote, he said, was because the council’s equality committee had just been given legal advice on the matter and he felt it would have been “wise” to postpone any decision to reflect on it.
“The reason I abstained was that I felt that the substantial information we had been given by the council solicitor justified a deferment would be better for the council, so it could sit back and evaluate everything he conveyed to us.”
See Letters, page 44