Fury after Sinn Fein blocks debate on IRA play park name
There was fury and frustration last night as Sinn Fein councillors shut down a debate on a children's play park controversially named after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.
The final full meeting of Newry and Mourne council saw fiery exchanges after Sinn Fein used its dominance to ensure a unionist motion could not be discussed.
In the end, an Ulster Unionist motion to rename the playground Patrick Street Play Park was not even debated.
Unionists told the chamber that the issue would continue to "poison the well" and vowed that it would not go away.
The playground in Newry has been a bone of contention for the Co Down council.
The family facility is named after Raymond McCreesh, who died on hunger strike in 1981. He has been linked to the 1976 Kingsmills massacre in which 10 Protestant workmen were murdered by the IRA.
Ahead of last night's meeting, all eyes had been on the SDLP, which had been tearing itself apart over the issue.
The SDLP councillors had been rapped by their own party leader after eight out of nine failed to turn up to a committee meeting on February 11, when a vote was taken on the disputed name of the park.
The motion to keep the name was passed by 15 votes to four.
However, even though all nine SDLP councillors turned up last night - and joined with the five unionists to vote in favour of debating the issue - they were out-voted by 15 to 14.
All 13 Sinn Fein councillors and two independent councillors voted against suspending standing orders in order to debate the issue. One independent councillor was absent.
A brief but bitter exchange followed. UUP councillor David Taylor warned: "This issue is not going away. We will continue to explore every avenue."
Ukip's Henry Reilly accused Sinn Fein of turning it in to a "Protestant vs Catholic, unionist vs nationalist issue". He said the park's name was "grotesquely" insensitive to one side of the community.
Sinn Fein councillor Liz Kimmins told the council that the issue had been debated many times and stated that the party stance remained "unchanged".
Speaking afterwards Mr Reilly said he was disappointed the new super council which takes over on April 1 would now have to deal with the issue. He said: "We brought it forward in good faith thinking we could convince all the council - given that this is the last full monthly meeting of the old Newry and Mourne council - that we could have got together, and want the same thing.
"It only took two councillors there tonight to vote along with us.
"There are two independent republicans in there so if they had voted along with us, it would have meant a full debate and we could have thrashed this out before the new super council starts.
"It's going to poison the well in the new council too because we are not going to let this stop."
SDLP group leader Michael Carr said, had the debate actually got going, his party would have voted for renaming the park.
He said: "All nine (councillors) were there and all voting as one. We are disappointed that the debate wasn't allowed.
"We've been accused of all sorts because we had a big absence last time for which we have apologised.
"There were some very genuine reasons.
"I think tonight maybe also proves that had we all been there the last time, we couldn't have carried the vote.
"I'm just disappointed that we didn't get the opportunity to debate this. The SDLP policy is very clear on it, that we do not support naming any facility at all after anybody that was involved in the Troubles."
He added: "We are very much of the opinion, in an act of reconciliation if nothing else, and taking into consideration the feelings of the McCreesh family, who in some ways are victims in this as well, we are the party of reconciliation and that now is the time to change the name."
The Council was also previously criticised by the Equality Commission for retaining the name. Mr Carr called for the Commission to make a "clear, unambiguous statement about where we are and what we should be doing".
Raymond McCreesh, from Camlough in south Armagh, was one of 10 IRA prisoners who died in the Maze Prison in 1981 aged 24. His convictions included attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and possession of firearms with intent to endanger life. The council's decision to retain the name of the children's play park last April was criticised by the Equality Commission.