Roundabout And Divisions Destroyed Newry Party

“WE shall not be moved” was the battle-cry by residents and business people in Newry, whose campaign against a major roundabout, along with controversy over housing allocations, caused deep divisions within the Irish Labour Party, which controlled the Urban Council in the 60’s.

The roundabout, which would cause the demolition of 70 homes and 14 business premises at Kilmorey Street, William Street and River Street, was planned as part of the dual carriageway through the town. Calls on the Ministry of Development to consider a more modest scheme were rejected.

Council chairman Pat McMahon, along with five colleagues, decided to support the original project. But this was opposed by four other Irish Labour Party councillors, including the chairman of the Newry Branch, Tommy McGrath.

Controversy was also sparked off when the Press was banned from the council meeting, at which 54 houses at Barcroft Park and the Armagh Road were allocated. Cllr McGrath attacked the Council chairman for declaring: “Give me my bite of the cherry,” when allocating a six-apartment house to a person, who had been married only a few months.

The Irish Labour Party in the frontier town had sensationally split, six years earlier, when Council chairman Tommy Markey was expelled from the party for taking the salute of the Irish Guards. The ebullient ex-serviceman had bounced back, formed his own party, and was returned to power with the support of the unionist councillors.

Now the party was riven in two once more, amid bitter acrimony. In one corner were Cllrs Pat Mc Mahon, Mickey McKeown, John McKevitt, Terry Hogan, Matt McAteer and Stephen Ruddy, while on the other side were Cllrs Tommy McGrath, Colman Rowntree, Hugh Golding and Mick Murphy.

M.P. for South Down and former council chairman Max Keogh seized the opportunity to make political capital, and strongly supported the protesters. He urged the Minister for Development not to sanction the scheme but to institute an inquiry.

A front-page editorial in his newspaper, the `Frontier Sentinel,` described the proposed roundabout as “grandiose in the extreme,” stated that it “was not necessary for the development of the area, and was put forward without any thought for the suffering and sacrifice of those involved.

“The new through-pass should not lead to the uprooting of families from their homes, and the destruction of their businesses in one of the most presentable areas of the town, where they have lived and worked for generations. Too little thought has been given by the planners to the feelings and the future of those affected. There is an onus on them to come up with some alternative.”

When the roundabout proposal was first submitted to Newry Urban Council, strong reservations were expressed by the majority of members. A less ambitious plan was put forward, but rejected by the Ministry of Development. The planners were commissioned to produce an amended project, but since it would have received a lesser grant, the six Irish Labour members, along with Mr Markey’s party and the unionists, decided to recommend its acceptance, at a meeting of the General Purposes Committee.

Meanwhile, residents and business people of the area had been galvanised into action. The South Ward Tenants Association was formed, and a protest meeting held at the Girls’ Club in Kilmorey Street. A deputation was selected to put their case to the Urban Council, consisting of chairman Tom Murray and secretary Frank O’Hanlon, along with P.J. Russell, Gerry McArdle, Matt and John Price.

Pointing out that the council was “dealing with a very progressive-minded community,” John Price said that “many of the residents have sunk considerable capital into their homes and businesses. When such a comprehensive scheme is drawn up, the residents of the affected area, including Bridge Street, must be consulted and their approval secured.

“In the area approved for demolition are about ten invalids, as well as a large number of old people, whom it would be inhuman to displace. The shock might have serious consequences, for which you would be responsible. And it would be totally unwarranted to destroy such a fine residential area.”

And Mr Price added: “As a progressive community, we would like to co-operate, but the proposed plan is unnecessary, and the sacrifice unjustified. You are not dealing with a slum clearance area, but a vibrant community, as well as 14 businesses, including three public houses, whose licences cannot be transferred.

“This is an unwarranted and wanton attempt to impose on this area a scheme, for which there is no justification from a traffic point of view, nor any demand from the townspeople in general. From a financial aspect, the town is in no position to proceed with this scheme, even if were the most urgent necessity,”

Calling on I.L.P. councillors to resign, if they supported the roundabout, secretary Frank O’Hanlon pointed out: “We strongly supported your election to this council. But our votes did not confer upon you the right to exercise your own discretion, in dealing with matters of great importance, concerning our material and social welfare.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008