Northern Ireland

SDLP regrets Raymond McCreesh Newry park distress

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

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has said his party "deeply regrets the hurt and distress unwittingly caused" by the naming of a playpark after an IRA man.

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

The playground was first named after McCreesh in 2001, but the local council voted to retain the name last December.

Twenty nationalist councillors - including six SDLP representatives - voted to uphold it.

One SDLP councillor, Frank Feely, abstained. Two other SDLP councillors opposed the move: Councillor John McArdle absented himself from the chamber before the vote, while Connaire McGreevy, was unable to attend the meeting as he was ill.

On Tuesday, Mr McDonnell said that the council had been satisfied it had carried out an effective equality impact assessment and one of recommendations was the retention of the name of the park. He said the vote was to place a new and official park sign in place of an old one.

"The intention of our SDLP councillors was that in continuing with the existing name of the park that no other public spaces in the future would be similarly named. In local terms the decision was understandable. On wider terms very much less so," he said.

"Our representatives acted entirely in good faith. It was not in their thinking or intention to cause hurt and distress to anyone. Yet hurt and distress was caused and the SDLP regret that."

He added: "The SDLP opposes the naming of public spaces after people, whatever their background or label, associated with violence of recent decades, as this causes further to deepen hurt to victims and their families and become a barrier to dealing with the past.

"At our upcoming party conference the SDLP will seek to reaffirm party support for this position.

"A motion has been tabled that says that: 'Conference believes that both in principle and in order to advance healing and national reconciliation following the recent decades of conflict, no public place should be named after any person involved in state or paramilitary violence.'"

Kingsmills massacre link

In March, the Equality Commission said it would investigate the decision by the council to retain the name.

Last year, a report into the 1976 Kingsmills Massacre linked McCreesh to the IRA murders of 10 Protestant men.

McCreesh was not convicted of involvement in the massacre, but the 2012 HET report stated that when he was arrested on another IRA operation, he was caught in possession of one of the guns that had been used in the Kingsmills murders.

McCreesh, from the village of Camlough, outside Newry, died in the Maze prison in May 1981 at the age of 24.

He had been arrested five years earlier during a failed IRA ambush on an Army patrol in south Armagh in 1976.

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

Statement welcomed

Reacting to Dr McDonnell's statement, DUP MEP Diane Dodds said: "It's welcome that the SDLP now regret the decision to name the playpark after a terrorist, even though it's taken the SDLP many months to find its moral conscience.

"The question now for the SDLP leader is if he will lead a campaign to change the name of the play-park?"

Basil McCrea, leader of NI21, welcomed the statement. "When a political party has the bravery to admit it has made a mistake it should be broadly applauded," he said.

Stewart Dickson of the Alliance Party said: "It was wrong for the SDLP councillors to support this proposal and I hope they will now seek to change the name of this play park."

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