The SDLP has rejected unionist criticism of its decision not to rename the Raymond McCreesh play park in Newry.
Newry and Mourne District Council on Wednesday night was faced with a motion of three choices about what to do about the park, named in honour of IRA member Raymond McCreesh who died on hunger strike in 1981.
It had the options of renaming the park, retaining its name or leaving the name in place until a review of all playgrounds was carried out. Sinn Féin and SDLP councillors voted for the third option which was carried against unionist opposition.
Calling the park after Mr McCreesh triggered unionist anger from its naming in 2001. This was intensified after Mr McCreesh was linked to an Armalite rifle used in the 1976 Kingsmill massacre, in which 10 Protestant workmen were killed by the IRA.
The SDLP, in voting for the review of all playgrounds, said the park would no longer be under council ownership in 2018 which would allow for a solution to the issue. Sceptical unionists responded that change of ownership would not necessarily lead to change of name.
SDLP accused of breaking a promise
The DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party accused the SDLP of breaking a promise to change the name of the park.
In 2015, the SDLP supported a DUP Northern Assembly motion criticising the council's decision to name the park after the hunger striker. Last year the North's Equality Commission told the council it should review the park's name.
On Thursday, Newry and Armagh DUP Assembly member William Irwin said the decision was a "slap in the face for innocent victims".
“Both the SDLP and Sinn Féin are very keen to lecture others about equality and they regularly cite the views of the Equality Commission. However, when it comes to the glorification of a brutal sectarian killer then both these parties are happy to ignore the commission’s guidance,” he said.
David Taylor, the UUP's group leader on the council said: "We have heard much from Sinn Féin in recent times about promoting an equality and respect agenda, but it is abundantly clear that they cannot be taken seriously in this regard when their party actively promotes the naming of children's play parks after convicted terrorists."
“Republicans commemorate Raymond McCreesh because of how he chose to die. The unionist community cannot forget how he chose to live,” he added.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said "regardless of the spin" the SDLP and Sinn Féin "effectively voted to keep a play park named after a man arrested with a rifle used in the Kingsmill massacre".
“Unless or until this decision is reversed all talk from nationalist parties - whether Sinn Féin or SDLP - about human rights should be answered simply with Raymond McCreesh play park,” said Mr Allister.
Newry and Mourne SDLP councillor Michael Savage said his party "did not vote against renaming the park" but supported an option suggested by an 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,” he said.
Mr Savage said the SDLP acted in the interests of the community by taking a “common sense approach to the issue that would have the entire issue of the play park looked at through the play strategy”.
“SDLP policy is clear - we do not support the naming of any public space after those involved in the violence of our recent past,” he added.
Local Sinn Féin councillor Charlie Casey said the overwhelming majority of people from the Ballybot area in Newry, where the park is located, believed the name of Raymond McCreesh park should remain unchanged.
“Sinn Féin supports the right of the residents of Ballybot to determine the future of their local facilities, and to name it in any way they see fit,” he said.