The SDLP admitted last night that it had broken promises to unionists in Newry Mourne and Down by not voting to change the name of a play park named after an IRA man.
And the party’s group leader on the council, Gary Stokes, asserted that the solution to years of community tensions on the matter, voted through by the SDLP and Sinn Fein last night, is that the property will be out of council ownership by next year.
However, unionists believe the result will be the property remaining ‘McCreesh Park’ permanently – the only difference being it will be in private hands and possibly supported by grants made with ratepayers’ money.
Asked if the SDLP decision amounted to a breach of promises to unionists to support a change in the name, Mr Stokes replied: “I suppose so.”
The Newry playground is named after Raymond McCreesh, whom the Historical Enquiries Team said was arrested with a weapon used in the slaying of 10 Protestant workmen at Kingsmills, south Armagh, several months after the 1976 attack.
The Equality Commission had directed the council consider an analysis of public responses on the name and take a public vote on the matter.
But the unionist minority on the council was swept aside last night as the council’s recommended course of action appeared, in their eyes, to sidestep the direction.
Officials last night gave councillors the option of retaining the current name or choosing a new neutral one – but recommended a review of the use of the land, in partnership with the local community.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein voted 23 in favour of this option while nine councillors voted to change the name.
The SDLP has 14 councillors on the local authority, equal to the number of seats held by Sinn Fein.
Mr Stokes explained why they had apparently sidestepped the commission’s recommendation to vote on the name.
“To go and stir things up for a few months is not worth it,” he said.
Asked if their decision did not mean it would then likely remain McCreesh Park permanently, he replied: “Yes, but it will no longer be a public play park.”
UUP councillor David Taylor told the News Letter last night that former SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell “made it very clear if there was a future vote taking place that the SDLP would support a change in the name”. He had assumed the SDLP stood by that, he said.
Asked by the News Letter if the SDLP had therefore changed its policy, Mr Stokes replied: “Yes you are correct. But this has been agreed by the party centrally.”
Further pressed if this did not amount to the SDLP breaking its promises to unionists, he replied: “I suppose so.”
Mr Taylor said: “The only option that should have been taken tonight was to change the name. It is unacceptable in the civilised world for a children’s playground to be named after a convicted terrorist.”
Sinn Fein councillor Willie Clarke said the vote had been a good outcome for community relations – in the area immediately around McCreesh Park.
“The name [McCreesh] is held dear in that area,” he said. Asked if the park was now destined to retain the McCreesh name in a private capacity, he did not rule it out.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “They have effectively voted to keep a play park named after a man arrested with a rifle used in the Kingsmills massacre.”
He added: “Unless or until this decision is reversed all talk from nationalist parties – whether Sinn Fein or SDLP – about human rights should be answered simply with Raymond McCreesh play park.”
Victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer, who was present last night, said afterwards: “They are simply inflicting more suffering on victims. We will be taking legal advice on this.”
Meanwhile, Bea Worton’s legal challenge against the council will have a brief hearing today to consider the outcome of the council vote.