Alliance holds key in flag battle vote

Union Flag at the front of Belfast City Hall. Picture: Diane Magill
Union Flag at the front of Belfast City Hall. Picture: Diane Magill

UNIONISTS in Belfast’s council chamber have not given up hope of keeping the Union Flag flying at the City Hall, according to the DUP.

The issue of the flag – which has split unionists and nationalists along traditional lines – has given Alliance representatives the deciding vote when the council reviews its policy in the coming weeks.

At present, Belfast City Council flies the national flag every day of the year but nationalists are in favour of it only being flown on a few designated days.

Writing in today’s News Letter, the leader of the council’s Alliance grouping, Maire Hendron, says the position of her party has not changed since the matter was referred for an Equality Impact Assessment in 2002 and again in 2011 – when the recommendation both times was that the flag should only fly on certain days such as the Queen’s birthday.

More than 15,000 people have signed a petition supporting the permanent display of the Union Flag and DUP group leader on the council, Christopher Stalford, has said he still hoped the Alliance representatives would re-think their position on the proposal.

Mr Stalford said: “The facts of the mathematics on the council are clear – unless Alliance vote against this unwanted proposal to tear the Union Flag from City Hall it will go ahead.

“A tiny minority of people want this change while the overwhelming majority do not. How does dancing to an extremist republican perspective, while ignoring the overwhelming majority, represent a commitment to good relations in the city or a shared future?

“I am imploring the Alliance Party to do the right thing and ensure that this harmful and potty proposal is rejected.”

However, Mrs Hendron has said the “designated days” policy was in keeping with other UK cities.

Speaking on BBC Radio’s Nolan Show yesterday morning, Mrs Hendron said: “We were formed to create a better society in Northern Ireland; to create better relations, and the good relations policy of the City Hall ... which was agreed by all parties, that we would provide better leadership with strong, fair and together leadership, and that is what we want.

“We hold the balance of power – not always the nicest place to be – and we have difficult decisions to make but we don’t make them at the behest of either side of the House, or either side of the chamber in the City Hall.”

Earlier this year it emerged that there had only ever been a handful of official complaints about the flag – several of which were from members of Sinn Fein.

It also emerged that an independent report about the issue, commissioned by the council, was leaked to the BBC. According to that report, the most popular option was for the Union Flag only to be flown on significant dates.

The report said that while the majority of Protestants visiting the City Hall felt “pleased, proud or comfortable” to see the flag, most Catholics had no feelings on its presence. Only 12 per cent of Roman Catholics surveyed said that the flag made them feel unwelcome or offended them, while slightly more (20 per cent) said it made them feel uncomfortable.

The leader of the Sinn Fein grouping in the City Hall said people should accept that Northern Ireland isn’t as British as other UK regions.

“We don’t need to fly a flag in a way that divides the city, that excludes people. Our suggestion is that we fly a civic flag that unites everyone in the city or we fly no flag at all. Let’s be clear – we’re not as British as Finchley, this isn’t the British Home Counties,” said Jim McVeigh.