SDLP acted in 'interests of community' in Raymond McCreesh park name change vote - unionists say failed bid is 'slap in face for victims'
The SDLP has said it acted in the "interests of the community" in a contentious council vote to change the name of a Co Down play park named after an IRA man.
Raymond McCreesh park was opened in Newry in 2001, sparking a backlash from unionists who claimed it glorified terrorism and excluded others from using it.
On Wednesday night 13 SDLP councillors voted against a name change, siding with 10 Sinn Fein representatives to choose a public consultation option instead.
A member of the Provisional IRA's South Armagh Brigade, McCreesh was arrested in 1976 aged 19 while attempting to ambush an army observation post.
The gun he was found with had been used months earlier in the Kingsmill massacre of 10 Protestant workmen.
He later gained martyr status in 1981 after being the third of 10 republicans to die on hunger strike in the Maze Prison after Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes.
In Downpatrick members of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council voted by 23 votes to nine against an option to rename the park with a politically neutral title.
Instead, the use of the land is to be reconsidered by the council in a consultation, which means it may pass into community ownership.
Given the sharply polarised views on the matter, Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors called the result a "common sense" approach.
Unionist politicians, however, said they feared a private owner would simply use the McCreesh name again.
Reacting further on Thursday the DUP's William Walker said the expected result was "a slap in the face for innocent victims".
Mr Walker said: "In 2013 the then leader of the SDLP acknowledged the “hurt and distress” caused by his party’s Councillors voting to retain the name of an IRA terrorist. In 2015 the SDLP told us there was “an on-going discussion” with Councillors when they failed to vote to change the name. We need to hear from the current leader of the SDLP whether that “on-going discussion” continued until last night and whether he is happy that his party still causes hurt and distress when his Councillors openly admit they broke promises made on this issue.
"There is little doubt that keeping Raymond McCreesh Park in place, albeit under community ownership fits the Sinn Fein ‘Trojan Horse’ definition of equality. Does the SDLP leader believe however, as his Council Group Leader appears to, that handing over this park to community ownership with its name still in place, represents “a solution to the dispute”?
"Consulting on the issue for a potential sale of the park is not a resolution it is a fudge and it is offensive to any right-thinking person.”
However SDLP councillor Michael Savage said there was "no change" in the SDLP's position.
He said: “At the council meeting our councillors proposed option 3 to go forward to deal with the McCreesh Play Park issue. This is a common sense approach to the issue that would have the entire issue of the play park looked at through the play strategy.
“The SDLP did not vote against renaming the park but voted for an option suggested by the independent consultant, council directors and legal advice.
“Naming a public space, and particularly a children’s park, in this way is something which clearly caused hurt to victims and survivors. We must also recognise the hurt experienced by the McCreesh family and the pain that this protracted situation continues to cause them.
“The SDLP isn't interested in political point scoring on such a sensitive issue and nor should others be.
“We do not, in any way, want to add to the burden of those who have suffered. The politicking that has been played around these issues only serves to open the wounds of the past, wounds that we all have a duty to repair.
He continued: “SDLP policy is clear – we do not support the naming of any public space after those involved in the violence of our recent past. Our decision to address this issue, therefore, is not related to any individual. It is influenced by a sincere desire to heal our divided society by moving on from the conflicts of the past. Peace and reconciliation is not simply the absence of violence, it is a fundamental shift in mindset and approaches to politics.
“Without a way of sensitively dealing with these issues and dealing with the legacy of the past, they will continue to affect and infect our politics.
“Our decision last night was to deal with the issue appropriately without allowing the issue to descend into a political farce with two extremes pulling strips of each other."
When the park was first named in 2001, several SDLP councillors on the former Newry and Mourne Council supported the McCreesh name.
This was criticised by the SDLP's senior leadership at the time and again in 2015 when only one member of the party attended a vote to change the name and abstained.
The 13 SDLP members who voted with Sinn Fein were; Terry Andrews, Pete Byrne, Michael Carr, Dermot Curran, Laura Devlin, Gillian Fitzpatrick, Kate Loughran, Declan McAteer, Mark Murnin, Gary Stokes, Michael Savage, Brian Quinn and John Trainor.
Ten Sinn Fein councillors also voted for the same option while three DUP, three UUP, two Alliance councillors and one independent unionist voted for a name change.