Naming of play park breaches equality laws

April 14, 2014

An investigation by the Equality Commission has ruled that Newry and Mourne District Council failed to comply with its own Equality Scheme when deciding to retain the name of the city centre play park, ‘Raymond McCreesh Park’.

The children’s play facility on Patrick Street was originally named in 2001 after the Camlough-born Hunger Striker, following a request from a local hunger strike commemoration committee.  In December 2012, following a complaint from an Orange Lodge, Councillors were asked to reconsider that decision and, despite opposition from Unionists, Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors voted to retain the name.

This move prompted a complaint to the Equality Commission, alleging that the Council had failed to comply with equality laws. A formal probe was subsequently instigated by the Commission after it had reviewed documentation relating to the decision to retain the name.

The recently published report detailing the findings of the Equality Commission investigation states that the Council’s consideration of the issue was “more focussed on process and on maintaining the name of the play park than on paying due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and regard to the desirability of promoting good relations”.

In light of its findings, the Commission has made three recommendations to the Council, stating that it should review the decision to name the park after Raymond McCreesh, in a transparent manner that takes proper account of the legal obligations regarding the promotion of equality and good relations; that it should review its policy on naming all Council facilities and that the reviews be completed and reported to the Commission within twelve months, along with a report on progress be made to the Commission within six months.

Speaking about the outcome of the investigation, Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission, said, “The Commission cannot, and would not wish to, substitute its view for the decisions made by democratically elected councillors or any other public authority, but we do have a particular role in Northern Ireland in monitoring compliance with the approved Equality Schemes adopted by public bodies.  By adopting its Equality Scheme, Newry and Mourne District Council made a public commitment that the impact its policies and decisions might have on equality and good relations would be fully considered.

“The Commission recognises that the Council has a long-standing commitment to promoting good relations, with a programme of work to support this. However, our investigation has found that little consideration appears to have been given by the Council to the impact its decision in this instance might have on the Protestant/Unionist community or to the damage it might cause to good relations.”

Sinn Fein MLA, Mickey Brady, says people should remember the request to name the park after Raymond McCreesh “came from the people of Barcroft/Ballybot” and a subsequent Council survey found 84 per cent in favour.

“Raymond McCreesh was a resident of this district who died on hunger strike in 1981.  He is viewed as a distinguished republican in the area, where I actually grew up, and his sacrifice is remembered and recognised by the people of Newry to this day,” Mr Brady said.

“There are currently numerous instances of council-owned facilities around Newry being named after people of historical note.  For example, Haughey House, Bagnall’s Castle and the Albert Basin area.  The many who admire Irish freedom fighter Raymond McCreesh have as much right to remember him in this way as those who admire unionist peers, British knights and British kings.”

The SDLP Group leader on the Council, Councillor Michael Carr, says his party fully accepts the Equality Commission report.

“When the original decision [to name the park] was made, the SDLP did so based on multiple sources of advice. However, it transpires that there was still a breach of the Council’s own Equality Scheme. At the time, it was not in the thinking of the SDLP to cause hurt or distress to anyone,” Councillor Carr said.

“The SDLP accepts that the original decision should be reviewed. If a proposal is then forthcoming to rename the park, the SDLP will oppose naming this park or any other public space after individuals, whatever their background or label, associated with violence of recent decades as this causes further hurt to victims and their families and becomes a barrier to dealing with the past.”

Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy said the play park vote was an embarrassment and had “serious implications” for the Council.

“The nationalist and republican parties got it wrong when they named the park after Raymond McCreesh.  Now they find themselves to be shamed and huge damage done,” he said.

Mr Kennedy called on the Council to act immediately to rescind earlier decisions and for sanctions to be taken against those Councillors involved.

Ulster Unionist Councillor David Taylor also welcomed the findings of the report and said the original decision taken to retain the name of the playground had caused “considerable hurt to the minority Unionist Community within Newry & Mourne District.” He also urged the Council to initiate a process to remove the name of Raymond McCreesh from the play park immediately.

A spokesperson for Newry and Mourne District Council confirmed to The Examiner that it had received the Equality Commission Finalised Investigation Report and advised that it would be responding “in due course, once it has had the opportunity to consider the report”.