Unionist outrage after failed bid to change name of Raymond McCreesh park
A call to change the name of a Co Down play park named after an IRA man has been defeated after a contentious council vote last night.
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.
Last 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 last night, 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.
Ulster Unionist David Taylor told the council: "It's hard to justify how you can name a play area after a terrorist no matter how you spin it. (This) is just putting it off for another day."
He added: "We would have absolutely no control if this was passed to the local community. There's nothing stopping whoever owns it to apply for council money and keep the name."
The DUP's William Walker said the expected result was "prolonging the hurt of Raymond McCreesh's victims".
Alliance councillor Andrew McMurray also voted in favour of a name change, saying: "When naming public spaces we must be mindful of all in society."
Speaking after the vote the SDLP councillor Michael Savage said: "It has been an issue that's been rumbling on for a long time and the SDLP has always been the party of good relations and reconciliation. We feel that this proposal is a common sense approach. There's polar opposite views on this and I think it will help solve it long term."
Sinn Fein's Willie Clarke, the council's deputy chair, agreed adding: "We have a council strategy (on all play parks) which is about to go out to consultation around January.
"There will be a good opportunity for the local community to talk about the Raymond McCreesh park but also the Barcroft park (also in Newry) as well. It's an opportunity to see what's best for the community."
Asked if the McCreesh name made it a no-go area for some he said: "I don't see it like that, it's a local community park. It's very precious to the local community as indeed is the name. They believe the park belongs to them and the name Raymond McCreesh represents them.
"But I wouldn't like to pre-empt the consultation. It may throw up a number of issues."
Independent unionist Henry Reilly said he was "very disappointed" by the result.
"I think the council is trying to out-manoeuvre a current legal case that's still going on and kick it down the road a bit," he said.
"It's an opportunity for the council to show empathy and understanding with the unionist community who feel very isolated from this council as an entity.
"This should have been a very constructive move towards making sure the council is open to everybody and a warm house for everyone."
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.