MLAs clash over McCreesh park name
A council's naming of a play park in Northern Ireland after an IRA hunger striker makes a mockery of its responsibility to reach out to other traditions, a Stormont minister has told a fractious Assembly debate.
SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, who has responsibility for local government issues, was responding to a DUP motion questioning whether Newry and Mourne Council's decision to retain the name Raymond McCreesh park contravened equality guidelines.
"The debate has been emotive, it has been extremely divisive and it shows exactly why we need to move on from this type of debate," said Mr Durkan, whose party's handling of the issue has been the source of much controversy.
"It is my personal view that the McCreesh Park decision makes a mockery of councils' responsibilities to reach out to and serve all the community - it certainly doesn't promote good relations."
But during the often angry debate Sinn Fein robustly defended the naming of the park in Newry, insisting the hunger striker, who was convicted of attempted murder and a series of other terrorist offences, was a man of honour worthy of acclaim.
Sinn Fein's Megan Fearon claimed the ten hunger strikers who died were respected worldwide.
"Indeed, Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners in Robben Island drew strength from Raymond and his colleagues in their fight for justice," she said.
She said the current opposition to the name, which was first voted for in 2001, was "nothing more than a cheap stunt".
"This electioneering and exploitation on the back of victims' families is nothing short of a disgrace and should be condemned from all corners," Ms Fearon added.
The DUP's Sammy Wilson was one of a number of unionists who reacted angrily to the speech from the 23-year-old Sinn Fein representative.
He claimed her mind had been "poisoned" in the same way as the three teenage girls from London who recently travelled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (IS).
"How could someone born after the Troubles had started to peter out still have a mind so poisoned that she could come off with the stuff she has come off with today?" he said.
The bruising exchanges at Parliament Buildings, which forced speaker Mitchel McLaughlin to intervene on a number of occasions, were the latest in what is a long-standing and bitter political row over the name of the Co Down play park.
The SDLP's position has been the focus of intense scrutiny. The party's councillors were criticised by unionists for voting to retain the name in 2012 - a stance that the leadership later said had been a mistake.
But when the matter again came up for debate, at the council's equality committee last month, eight of the SDLP's nine councillors did not attend the meeting. The one who did, abstained in the vote.
Again, SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell expressed regret and said his councillors would oppose the name in future, in line with party policy.
A bid to have the naming issue raised at the full council meeting was voted down by Sinn Fein members last night.
Newry and Mourne Council will be absorbed into a new-look Newry, Mourne and Down super-council in April, when the issue is set to come up again.
This afternoon's Assembly debate comes a day after Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott launched a private members' legislative bid to prevent any public space in Northern Ireland being named after anyone found guilty of terror-related offences.
Mr Elliott's party colleague, Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy, told MLAs today he had always "consistently and vehemently opposed" the naming of the park.
"It's just plain wrong," he said.
"It's deeply offensive to me, it's deeply offensive to my community and I believe it is deeply offensive to the vast majority of people in Newry and Mourne, and further afield."
He added: "Raymond McCreesh will never be anything other than a terrorist - no matter how many times the revisionists try to launder his reputation."
Sinn Fein's Pat Sheehan said he knew Raymond McCreesh and described him as a man of "honour, integrity and courage".
"No-one in this chamber will succeed in criminalising Raymond McCreesh," he said.
"Margaret Thatcher wasn't able to do it in 1981 and nobody will be able to do it today."
Raymond McCreesh, from Camlough in south Armagh, was one of 10 IRA prisoners who died in the Maze Prison in 1981. He was 24.
His convictions included attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms with intent to endanger life and IRA membership.
He was also caught with a weapon that had been used in the IRA massacre of ten Protestant workmen in Kingsmills, Co Armagh, in 1976.
The DUP's William Irwin, who tabled the motion, told MLAs: "The McCreesh Park issue has deeply hurt many people in the Newry and Mourne area, who see both the SDLP and Sinn Fein's true attitude, particularly towards the minority unionist community.
"Whilst the actions of terrorists and the heartache they caused was ultimately futile, that does not mean their violence and criminality should be celebrated today."
Mr Irwin also questioned the actions of the NI Equality Commission, accusing it of being slow to act on the issue while claiming it had moved with "lightning speed" to take legal action against a Belfast-based Christian bakery that refused to bake a cake carrying a pro-gay marriage slogan.
In his contribution to the debate, SDLP leader Dr McDonnell reiterated his party's current position on the park issue.
"There is party politics being played out here around these issues and they are used continually to open wounds - wounds that we should all be working to repair," he said.
"We need to move in society into a situation where we actively promote reconciliation and that will not be achieved in any shape or form by glorying in violence or being selective in some violence."
Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn called for the park to be re-named.
"It's an odious thing to do - to name a children's play park after a convicted terrorist," he said. "It's just not right."
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said: "You cannot name shared spaces after those who tore this community apart."
As expected, the DUP motion was carried in the face of Sinn Fein opposition, with 65 members voting for it and 26 against.