Newry priest accuses Council of "religious discrimination" over city plans exclusion

A senior Catholic priest has accused a local authority of "religious discrimination" over parishioners being excluded from a meeting on city centre re-development.
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council (NMDDC) is understood to have invited all the original participants of the Newry City Centre Regeneration (NCCR) to a new working group. The group, set up to oversee the Council's "ambitious programme of works planned for the historic core of the City", previously saw city stakeholders like businesses and Newry Cathedral Parish take part in meetings, however the latest invite has excluded Newry Cathedral Parish prompting a furious reaction from the church.

Currently, the parish and the council are at loggerheads over plans to build a new £20m civic centre on a carpark used by Mass-goers. A petition with over 2,500 objections to the plan was recently handed in by the church.

READ MORE: Newry, Mourne & Down tourism drive ratified despite unionist concerns.

Newry Cathedral Parish administrator, Canon Francis Brown said: "Once again, NMDDC has shown complete disregard for Newry Cathedral Parish and the thousands of parishioners we represent by excluding us from the new Newry City Centre Regeneration stakeholder working group.
"A number of parishioners feel this is an act of discrimination against our community on the basis of religious beliefs and they intend to take legal advice on the matter.
"Sadly, this is just the latest incident in a long line of disrespectful behaviour by the council towards our historic cathedral and parish community.
"From failing to consult us initially about their plan to build offices directly behind the cathedral, to misrepresenting our views to councillors, to refusing to release details of their own review into the matter, this council has operated in bad faith."

The Council plans to build its new headquarters at Abbey Way in the centre of Newry, but the site currently provides off street parking including a multi-storey car park that the Catholic Church says is needed for Mass-goers at its Grade A listed building.
However, the local authority states that its new designs will provide more spaces for parishioners following an engineer’s survey of the car-park
NMDDC has previously referred to a parking survey of the Abbey Way site and has amended its HQ plans to provide 138 car park spaces at the site, it says is above the maximum occupancy rates recorded for Mass-goers.
Following a media query by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) the council revealed it has been engaging with the Department for Communities (DfC) to lease nearby lands at North Street, 150 yards away, to potentially develop a major pay and park facility. The site is currently a free parking zone used by city centre business employees.

Canon Brown added: "Although I am urging restraint for now, many parishioners have lost faith in this council's ability to act with transparency and integrity, and calls are growing for more direct actions such as marches and pickets.
"Our cathedral has stood as a spiritual and cultural anchor of Newry for centuries. We will continue standing firm to 'Save Our Cathedral' from short-sighted decisions that prioritise bureaucratic vanity projects over community interests.
"The people of Newry Cathedral Parish demand better from their elected leaders. We urge the community to join us in demanding an end to this marginalisation of our historic parish. We cannot allow a culture of religious discrimination to take root in our city."

The LDRS contacted NMDDC for comment, but at the time of going to print the local authority had failed to respond.

For all the latest news, visit the Belfast Live homepage here and sign up to our daily newsletter here