The 50th anniversary of the Ulster Defence Regiment is to be marked by Antrim and Newtownabbey with a permanent memorial in Ballyclare despite outrage from Sinn Fein.
The proposal by Ulster Unionist Alderman Danny Kinahan was further to a motion brought to a meeting of the borough council by DUP Councillor Paul Dunlop, from Antrim and seconded by UUP Councillor Robert Foster, Macedon, for a commemorative civic event to be held.
Ald Kinahan congratulated Cllr Dunlop for bringing the motion, saying that the UDR “did many great things, worked all day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for many years”.
Cllr Dunlop recalled that it was the largest regiment in the British Army, over half of which was full-time.
“Without their commitment and sacrifice, the police could have been overwhelmed”, he said.
More than 190 members were killed on active service and another 60 were killed after leaving the regiment.
Cllr Foster stated that the role of the UDR “cannot be understated or forgotten” having “paid a very heavy price and many more wounded physically and mentally”.
He spoke of a “lifetime spent looking over your shoulder and under your car”.
He noted that the regiment had “strong bonds and connections” to Antrim, Ballyclare and Newtownabbey.
“To recognise their role and sacrifice is something I feel strongly about”.
Opposing the motion and amendment, Sinn Fein Councillor Taylor McGrann said: “When I read this motion I asked myself of what benefit to this council would it be to hold a civic event for the UDR, arguably the most widely criticised regiment of the British army?
“I immediately thought of the Miami Showband and their families.”
Cllr McGrann outlined a case of what he described as “collusion between Britain and loyalist paramilitaries”.
Two serving UDR soldiers were convicted for their role in the atrocity.
Victims of the attack are currently suing the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) amid allegations of collusion.
Cllr McGrann continued: “For those of you who aren’t aware of this particular event of the Conflict – the band were travelling home in their minibus, back to Dublin, after a performance in Banbridge.”
Three members of the band, singer Fran O’Toole, guitarist Tony Geraghty and trumpeter Brian McCoy were killed close to Newry after their bus was stopped at an apparent army checkpoint.
Band members, Des McAlea and Stephen Travers, were injured but survived.
Cllr McGrann continued: “This is just one case of this regiment of the British Army carrying out murder on innocent people, there were many others.
“The UDR eventually disbanded in 1992 before the ceasefire or the Good Friday Agreement. To me, they were a failure to everything that they represented hence why they were disbanded before the conflict actually ended.”
SDLP Councillor Roisin Lynch said: “We are now in 2020. We as an SDLP group want to be good and tolerant neighbours and recognise the motion as genuine. We ask that it could be treated with sensitivity as there is much hurt within the community and nationalist community.”
Alliance Alderman Tom Campbell said he was “disappointed to hear such bitter views” from Cllr McGrann.
He responded to the Sinn Fein councillor’s comments on the Miami Showband murders by recalling Bloody Friday saying that “innocent members of the public were exposed to bombs that killed and maimed many people”.
“They were subject to arbitrary murder and terror,” he stated.
He went on to say that Cllr McGrann “dares to defend a murderous, treacherous campaign through support of Sinn Fein” and the party is a “political agent” for the IRA.
Responding to Ald Campbell, Antrim and Newtownabbey’s Deputy Mayor Sinn Fein Councillor Anne Marie Logue stated: “I would like to remind him that Cllr McGrann did not bring a motion glorifying the IRA.
“This is an absolutely disgraceful comment you have come out with.”
She went on to say that the council is supposed to be “progressive and going forward”.
However, she proceeded to talk about the extent of alleged UDR collusion in the murder of Catholics.
“The fact we are talking about a civic reception for the UDR is just disgraceful.”
Glengormley DUP Alderman Philip Brett said he was disappointed in the direction that the debate had taken following the motion brought forward “in recognition of a historical occasion”.
He pointed out that there are veterans of the UDR who are ratepayers in the borough.
“They are very much part of this borough and we wish to recognise that.”
Alliance Councillor Neil Kelly said that he wanted to mention that civilian members of the public worked in Steeple Barracks providing support roles.
The motion with the amendment for a memorial in Ballyclare was carried by 27 votes in favour and five against.
The SDLP abstained from voting.
By Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter