Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Theresa Villiers' biggest regret of her first year in the job: I should have been tougher over naming park after IRA man

Secretary of State says row harmed community efforts

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has rethought her response to the Newry play park row

THERESA Villiers says her biggest regret from her first year in Northern Ireland was not speaking out strongly enough against the naming of a Newry play park after a dead IRA man.

The Secretary of State said she wishes she had been tough in her response to the decision of Newry Council to call a children's play area after Raymond McCreesh, who died on hunger strike in 1981.

The decision, which is now under review, sparked outrage when it hit the headlines late last year.

Ms Villiers, who had been in office here, was asked about the decision in the House of Commons and said she didn't think it would be wise to interfere in the debate.

"Although my answer in the House of Commons was reasonable, with hindsight I think I should have been a bit tougher. The decision to name it after an IRA terrorist was not just unhelpful but actively difficult for community relations," Ms Villiers said in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph to mark her first year as Secretary of State.

The name particularly upset unionists because Mr McCreesh was captured in possession of a weapon which had been used in the 1975 Kingsmills massacre in which 11 Protestant workmen were murdered.

Last December, Ms Villiers was asked about it by Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP.

She said: "As to the decisions local authorities make in terms of naming playgrounds, I don't think it would be sensible or wise for me to interfere in that discussion, but I do think what we need to do in Northern Ireland is move towards a genuinely shared future, where these kinds of sensitive decisions can be taken on the basis of reasoned decision and mutual respect for the point of view of different parts of the community."

As Ms Villiers reveals her regret, she is today facing a further challenge in dealing with the fallout of IRA violence.

The Tory MP has received an angry challenge from UUP MLA Ross Hussey after she said her office had no legal powers to halt a parade through Castlederg to commemorate two IRA men who blew themselves up. He has asked her to come to the Co Tyrone village to see the impact of republican attacks during the Troubles.

The play park aside, Ms Villiers has no regrets about her first year in office. She points to early signs of economic recovery, to the success of the G8 conference and to the decision of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to launch a shared future strategy in partnership with the Government.

This strategy, and an economic package from central government, is set out in a signed agreement between Ms Villiers, the Prime Minister and the First and Deputy First Ministers.

"When I arrived as Secretary of State it looked as if there was a very considerable blockage and in recent weeks we have seen some real leadership from the First and Deputy First Ministers on those issues. I am looking forward to working with them as they try to implement them," Ms Villiers said.

"We hope the capital funding we have included in the economic package will help achieve the shared future ambitions".

She said that an infrastructure guarantee scheme, which will help the Executive fund capital projects like roads and hospitals, could play a key role in reviving the economy. She backs new Finance Minister Simon Hamilton for proposing the increased use of contractors in supplying public services.

She said: "He has been saying some really impressive stuff in the last couple of days. He is right to be talking about alternative means of involving different types of service providers."

She encouraged the Executive to look at the sale of assets like the Port of Belfast. It is currently a self-governing Trust Port which ploughs its profits back into port development.

She acknowledged that there were legal difficulties but added "there are very similar issues faced by the UK government with trust ports elsewhere. So sharing ideas on that front could be very useful".

Asked what she hoped to achieve if she was here for another year, she added: "I tend to be quite cautious and pessimistic about predicting the future, but I am happier with the situation now than I would have expected to be a few months ago."

She said she was hopeful the party talks, chaired by Richard Haass (below), could make progress on issues like parading and flags.

"I want to press ahead with implementing the economic package. I hope encouraging ideas coming from the Haass process will contribute to progress on the programme for a shared society announced by the First and Deputy First Ministers," she added.

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