You can visit our school if you bring your chequebook, unionist MLA tells SF Minister
An Ulster Unionist MLA who insisted Education Minister John O'Dowd's invitation to be guest of honour at Parkhall Integrated College's prizegiving be rescinded last year, will today welcome the Sinn Fein man.
Adrian Watson, who sits on the board of governors at Parkhall, told the Belfast Telegraph that Mr O'Dowd was welcome as long as "he brings his chequebook".
The minister is due to visit the Antrim school this morning to cut the sod for a new £21.7m building.
Mr Watson told the Belfast Telegraph that he stood by his view that neither Mr O'Dowd, nor any member of Sinn Fein, is a good role model for children to look up to, but he added he was willing to welcome him for the sake of the school.
"After years of delivering first-class teaching in second-rate accommodation, it is great to see the diggers on site and work starting on the new school," he said yesterday.
"John O'Dowd will be coming to the school in the morning, and I will be there to welcome him. However, I stand by what I said those months ago. And indeed, since then we have heard that the IRA Army Council still exists. I do not believe he is a good role model for the students."
Last October, an invitation to Mr O'Dowd to attend the school's prizegiving was withdrawn after Mr Watson said he would not attend if the Sinn Fein minister was present.
He said he did not feel Mr O'Dowd was an appropriate special guest, and claimed other parents were also concerned, but added that he did not speak for the whole school.
"In the past we have had successful sportspeople and Baroness Blood but, I'm sorry, I, as a unionist, do not view John O'Dowd as a good role model," he said then.
"Whether the politically correct people of this country like it or not, he is a divisive individual, and many were not impressed he was invited.
"When I found out it was John O'Dowd, my wider family circle would not be going. We are not interested in anything he has to share with us, and I certainly would not be wanting my child to go there to shake hands with John O'Dowd," Mr Watson, then an Antrim councillor, added at the time.
He joined the Northern Ireland Assembly in June, after being co-opted to replace the UUP's South Antrim MLA, Danny Kinahan, following Mr Kinahan's successful election as an MP.
Mr O'Dowd responded to Mr Watson's views last year, voicing his disappointment at what he described as a "backward step".
However, Mr Watson revealed that, since then, he has spoken to Mr O'Dowd, insisting that he was just as frank to his face: "I told him, 'As long as you bring your chequebook, you are welcome'."
Parkhall College became an integrated post-primary school in 2009, transforming from the controlled sector.
It is located in Antrim town, close to two sizeable loyalist estates at Parkhall and Steeple.
It currently has an enrolment of around 700 pupils.
The proposed development at Parkhall Integrated College includes the provision of a new two-storey school for approximately 735 pupils.
It also includes the creation of replacement playing fields, a synthetic pitch and five new tennis courts.