Belfast Telegraph

Naming Northern Ireland leisure centre after SAS soldier could alienate nationalists, warns SDLP

By Angela Rainey

Controversy has been sparked by a Co Down council's decision to name a new £30m complex after SAS founder Blair Mayne.

Plans by Ards and North Down Borough Council to name the new facility 'Ards Blair Mayne Leisure Centre' have been blasted by the SDLP, who claim it would be offensive to nationalists in the area.

The complex on Dairy Hall playing fields in Newtownards will open late next year and will replace Ards Leisure Centre which is set to close.

The SDLP is strongly opposed to the proposed name, claiming it is not "neutral" and is putting "the SAS up in bright lights".

The SAS was involved in many controversial shootings during the Troubles, leading to accusations that they operated a 'shoot to kill' policy here.

In an interview with the Sunday World, SDLP councillor Joe Boyle said: "I have concerns that naming the new centre after an SAS man will clash with the council's policy of keeping things like this neutral.

"When you see unionists voting for it with a wry smile on their face, you fear they are simply going through the back door to put the SAS up in lights.

"I'm already on record opposing this at various workshops and committees where it was one of the possible names put forward."

"This is a £30m facility which will be with us for at least the next 30 years and so I'm not sure we should be going down the road of naming the facility after someone who may be perceived to be from one side of the community.

"You have to remember everyone in the borough is paying for this centre through their rates so nationalist people in Portaferry for example should be able to feel confident about going to use it," Mr Boyle continued.

Independent councillor Jimmy Menagh, who proposed the new name, said he did so as recognition of the sporting prowess of Blair Mayne rather than his heroism in World War Two.

Robert Blair Mayne was born in Newtownards in 1915 and was one of the founding members of the Special Air Service in 1941, but was also known for his brilliance in sport.

A professional rugby player, he played for Ireland and the British Lions. He was a keen golfer and boxer as well, and was a lawyer by profession. A statue of him stands outside Newtownards Town Hall in Conway Square.

There is also a street named after him there, and another in Hereford, the English headquarters of the SAS.

"It's a fitting name for the area as he's well known and well respected, not just in Ards but all over the world," said Mr Menagh.

"People may remember him as a war hero but he was a fantastic athlete and had it not been for the Second World War he would have achieved even more in sport.

"He was a fabulous rugby player and not only did he play for Ireland, he proudly played for the British Lions.

"He still has family in the borough and they are fully supportive of the proposal," Mr Menagh continued.

He added: "I don't think anyone can have an issue with this because he fought in the Second World War - religion had nothing to do with what he did in the war."

The proposal which was voted for last week is now subject to an Equality Impact Assessment.

Belfast Telegraph

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