DUP move to block £6m park deal fails

Ronnie Harkness.
Ronnie Harkness.

It looks as if moves by Craigavon’s nine DUP councillors to block the European £6.5m grant to upgrade the town’s Public Park is headed up a cul-de-sac.

They withdrew a motion “in the meantime, pending further legal advice” to revoke the decision to upgrade the park, Legal advice on Monday night was inconclusive after Patricia Lundy of Arthur Cox, Belfast, addressed the council ‘in camera’. But the Portadown Times has learned that a design team has been signed up on a £250,000 contract, £110,000 has been spent, and councillors could face public audit scrutiny - and possible surcharge - if the project is jettisoned. Sinn Fein members claimed that a “get-out” clause could amount to £400,000, including legal fees, if the plan is abandoned.

Ms Lundy refused to give advice in public, after a tête-à-tête with chief executive Theresa Donaldson outside the chamber. She told the council she needed more information. And after she left, the public session turned into a fierce slanging match, with Alderman Sydney Anderson (DUP) and Councillor Ronnie Harkness (UUP) the main protagonists.

New Mayor Mark Baxter almost broke his gavel and he hammered the desk, and told Mr Harkness that he would be no longer heard.

Mr Anderson said he was sick and tired of nationalists in the park area talking about “a so-called shared space, and then going to extreme lengths to prevent the planned Orange Order religious service being held in the park - they sent letters, signed an obnoxious petition and even went to court in their bigoted, sectarian determination to keep Protestant out of the park”. He added, “And they were aided and abetted by Sinn Fein, SDLP and two UUP councillors in this chamber. The park will never be a shared space, and everyone knows it.”

Mr Harkness retorted that he was tired of having to endure “this diatribe from Alderman Anderson and Co.” He went on, “Which face do we expect from him and Alderman (Stephen) Moutray (both MLAs)? Their Stormont faces where they fall in behind Peter and Martin in their shared community and in the building of the Maze shrine, or their Craigavon faces where they turn back the clock 300 years?”

This caused uproar, with Mr Harkness adding that he voted against the park service to save the PSNI “from danger”. “I challenge Peter Robinson to deal with his party (DUP) dissidents in this council - they’re an embarrassment.” At this stage the Mayor told him, “Sit down!”

Sinn Fein’s Johhny McGibbon said that the Harkness speech was a courageous one, adding that the bill to abort the plan could reach £400,000-£500,000, which would be borne by the ratepayers, while SDLP’s Joe Nelson said that a “100 per cent effort will be made to reassure the unionist community”.

Mr Anderson withdrew the motion “at this stage”, pending further legal advice.