Northern Ireland

Theresa Villiers regrets stance over play park named after IRA man

Theresa Villiers
Image caption Theresa Villiers was repeatedly asked about the IRA play park tribute in the House of Commons

The secretary of state for Northern Ireland has said she regrets not being "tougher" over a council decision to name a play park after an IRA man.

Theresa Villiers made the remarks to the Belfast Telegraph, telling the paper it was her biggest regret during her first year in office.

The play park, in Newry, County Down, is named after Raymond McCreesh, who died on an IRA hunger strike in 1981.

Newry and Mourne Council voted to keep the name in December last year.

Unionist councillors had objected to the name, but it was voted through by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

'Hindsight'

Two days later, Ms Villiers was asked about the naming of the play park in the House of Commons, and she replied that it would not be "sensible or wise" for her to interfere with decisions taken by local authorities.

However, reflecting on her first year as Northern Ireland secretary, Ms Villiers told the newspaper: "Although my answer in the House of Commons was reasonable, with hindsight I think I should have been a bit tougher.

"The decision to name it after an IRA terrorist was not just unhelpful but actively difficult for community relations."

The children's playground in Patrick Street, Newry, was first given the name Raymond McCreesh park in 2001.

However, last December, Newry and Mourne councillors were asked to vote on whether or not they wanted to retain the name, after two committees examined the issue.

The decision to keep the name outraged unionists, as 18 months earlier, an investigation into the 1976 Kingsmills massacre had linked McCreesh to the sectarian murders of 10 Protestant men.

Gun

The ten men were shot dead on a rural road in south Armagh, as they travelled home together from their jobs in a textile mill.

Image caption Raymond McCreesh died on hunger strike in the Maze Prison in 1981

The Kingsmills report, carried out by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), concluded that the attack had been carried out by the IRA and the men had been targeted because of their religion.

It also revealed that McCreesh had later been found in possession of one of the guns used in the massacre.

On 5 December 2012, Ms Villiers was asked about the naming of the Newry playground in the House of Commons by three DUP MPs.

In reply to the DUP's Nigel Dodds, Ms Villiers told the Commons: "As to the decisions local authorities make on naming playgrounds, I do not think it would be sensible or wise for me to interfere in that discussion.

"We need to move towards a genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland, where such sensitive decisions can be taken on the basis of reason and mutual respect for the points of view of different parts of the community."

Controversial decisions

The following week, she reiterated that view when the issue was raised again in the House of Commons by MPs Kate Hoey and Ian Paisley.

Ms Villiers, the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet, was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland in September 2012.

Her first year in office has been marked by two controversial decisions taken by local authorities in December 2012 - the Newry play park issue and Belfast City Council's vote to restrict the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall.

The union flag vote led to violent street protests in Northern Ireland that lasted for several weeks.

Her tenure has also seen Northern Ireland host the G8 summit in County Fermanagh, which Chief Constable Matt Baggott described as "the most peaceful and secure" in history.

Newry and Mourne Council's decision to retain the Raymond McCreesh park name is being formally investigated by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

McCreesh, from the village of Camlough, outside Newry, died on hunger strike in the Maze prison in May 1981. He was 24.

He had been arrested five years earlier during a failed IRA ambush on soldiers in south Armagh.

His convictions included attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms with intent to endanger life and IRA membership.

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