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Anger as DUP tries to name leisure centre after centenary of Northern Ireland

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Proposal: Mark Baxter

Proposal: Mark Baxter

Proposal: Mark Baxter

A DUP proposal to name a Craigavon leisure centre in honour of Northern Ireland's centenary is set to meet fierce opposition.

The matter will be brought before Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council on Monday night.

Mark Baxter, the DUP's group leader on the council, is behind the plan, which would see the new facility called the Centenary Leisure Centre.

Opponents branded it a political stunt.

The SDLP said it would be celebrating the "worst thing to happen to Ireland since partition".

Outlining his proposal, Mr Baxter said: "Our country celebrates a great milestone on May 21 next year, our 100th anniversary as a nation within the United Kingdom. Given the current economic situation, we, as a party, discussed a fitting and inexpensive way to mark this significant anniversary, so we will propose that the council officially name the new leisure centre in Craigavon as the 'Centenary Leisure Centre'."

SDLP councillor Joe Nelson, a member of the leisure centre's project board, hit out at the proposal and made it clear he will be "very vocal" in his opposition.

He said: "We knew there would be an effort by the DUP to try and stamp its authority on this centre. The default name from day one has been the South Lake Leisure Centre. This is something that I feel defines accurately the provision of this state-of-the-art facility and the environment in which it is located.

"This proposal by the DUP is nothing more than a political stunt. They want to call it after something that I would describe as the worst thing to happen to Ireland since partition.

"I am someone who respects others' views but I will be very vocal about my opposition to this proposal when it is raised in council. The proposal will be taken by the Catholic/nationalist community as another insult by the DUP group on council as it continues to try to drag us back to the 'Ballygobackwards' days of Craigavon council.

"It is a slap in the face to nationalist people and I would urge the Ulster Unionist Party to stand up and be counted on Monday night."

Alliance group leader Eoin Tennyson said his party favoured retaining the name South Lake Leisure Centre.

He added: "Alliance believes council facilities should be named in a manner which maintains neutrality and reflects locality, so as to be welcoming for everyone across our community.

"The existing name of South Lake Leisure Centre achieves this, recognising local connections without memorialising or political posturing.

"Any change at this late stage would mean further delay to the opening of the centre and additional cost to ratepayers as an equality impact assessment would have to be satisfied, signage replaced at a potential cost of more than £40,000, and planning implications would have to be considered.

"We may even find ourselves in a position where residents are left without leisure provision altogether for an extended period.

"The centenary of Northern Ireland is a significant event in our shared history, and of course it is right that we mark it in a thoughtful, inclusive and informative way.

"Now, more than ever, people want to see their councillors showing leadership, working together and focused on the ongoing pandemic. Engaging in political point-scoring or a faux fight over the name of a leisure centre is merely a distraction from that."

Due to the make-up of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, should the Ulster Unionist Party decided to back this proposal, it will have the majority required to carry.

However, Ulster Unionist councillor Julie Flaherty explained the party has yet to meet over the issue.

"Unfortunately the UUP group have not had the opportunity to meet and discuss this matter," said the Portadown councillor.

"We will do so in anticipation of the council meeting on Monday night."

Sinn Fein was asked for comment.

Belfast Telegraph