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Could footbridge at centre of political row be named after town's fast-talking George?

By Lisa Smyth and Donna Deeney

Published 10/11/2015

The new footbridge in Strabane
The new footbridge in Strabane
George Cunningham being interviewed by UTV in the 1970s

He became famous around the globe in the 1970s as the fastest talking man in Strabane - and now he could provide a solution to a row threatening the future of a new bridge in the town.

It has emerged that a Mexican stand-off between Derry and Strabane Council and the Social Development Minister could cost ratepayers a whopping £1m.

Minister Mervyn Storey has threatened to withhold his department's contribution to the new £3.4m bridge if an alternative to the council's proposal to name the structure after former Sinn Fein councillor Ivan Barr is not found.

Four times a majority of councillors, made up of the Sinn Fein block and five independent members, submitted the single suggestion of Mr Barr to the Minister, which he has rejected each time.

Sinn Fein's Karina Carlin said: "We don't want this naming issue to be a negative slant on what is a positive story for Strabane, but the reality is Council voted on four separate occasions to name this bridge after Ivan Barr.

"The Minister needs to understand this is democracy - a vote is taken and a majority made a decision and, while not everyone has to agree, the majority decision stands."

The DUP's Rhonda Hamilton said there were plenty of alternative names that could be used.

She said: "Other suggestions included the John Dunlap Bridge, Unity Bridge and my own preference of Meeting House Bridge, but it is the one put forwarded by Sinn Fein that is being railroaded through.

However, one Strabane resident has proposed naming the pedestrian bridge after George Cunningham as a solution to the long-running disagreement.

"He is a non-political person and he made Strabane famous the world over," said Brian Dunn.

"I have actually written to the mayor of the council suggesting they name the bridge after George Cunningham as I think it would be the perfect name for the bridge.

Mr Cunningham, who died in 2011 at the age of 90, shot to fame in the 1970s when he was interviewed about the shortage of jobs and housing for the people of his home town.

In the 1970s - as the Troubles engulfed Northern Ireland - he became famous thanks to a 27-second interview with bewildered UTV reporter, Charles Witherspoon.

George's racing delivery eclipsed his honourable sentiments, and he was christened the fastest talking man in Strabane - becoming a regular face on chat shows across the UK and Ireland.

Two bids to get his name into the Guinness Book of World Records were unsuccessful by a matter of words - because, according to his son, David, "every word has to be legible". However, the clip was voted Northern Ireland's 'Favourite Magical TV Moment' by viewers during a programme to mark the end of analogue TV transmission.

A Department for Social Development spokeswoman said one of the conditions of Stormont funding for the bridge was that the Department would have final approval on the name: "The council accepted the Department's offer for grant funding on this basis."

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