A former UK sports minister has slammed Alliance for “denigrating” those with a British identity as the City Hall flag row reaches a climax.
Kate Hoey, the Ulster-born Labour MP for Vauxhall, says the stance of the party’s council grouping could lead Alliance voters to “regret their choice” at the ballot box.
At present, policy is for the Union Flag to fly from the City Hall all year round. However, Alliance supports a proposal to fly the national flag on designated days only.
Ms Hoey, who is also a member of the Westminster Select Committee on Northern Ireland, compared the current policy in Belfast to the permanent display of the tricolour at government buildings in Dublin.
Belfast councillors will meet tonight to vote on proposals which could see the Union Flag flown on designated days, left as it is, or removed altogether.
With the council split along unionist and nationalist lines on the issue, Alliance councillors hold the balance of power.
Last week a key committee voted to remove the Union Flag from some of the city’s most iconic landmarks – saying it should be removed from not only the City Hall, but from the Ulster Hall and another council-owned property at Duncrue.
However, the decision must be ratified by a meeting of the full council – which will take place tonight – before it can become official policy.
Ms Hoey said she is disappointed at the Alliance view on flying the flag.
“How on earth can the Alliance state that anyone supporting keeping the flag at the City Hall is ‘not truly devoted to creating a shared society,’” she said.
Describing the party’s position as “the latest double-speak from those who want to denigrate anyone who is proud of being British,” the experienced MP added: “I haven’t heard them criticising the flying of the Irish flag in Dublin.
“I am sure that many who voted Alliance thinking it was a party of tolerance will be regretting their vote. How dare Ms Hendron say that flying the flag of our country is ‘clinging to the politics of the past’.
“Fortunately being British is much more than just flying a flag and while Alliance votes may side with the nationalists to restrict the days when the flag can be flown, Northern Ireland’s position within the UK is stronger than ever.”
Maire Hendron, the Alliance group leader on the council, hit back saying: “I do not know if Ms Hoey knows all the facts about this subject as I do not think she gets back to Belfast much.
“The proposal for designated days was the recommendation of an equality impact assessment. This recommendation was made by the official body set up by the Government to make determinations on these types of subjects.”
Ms Hendron added: “If we can get all the parties to support designated days, this would be an historic agreement on how we display symbols and emblems, this truly would help deliver a shared future.”
A war of words has been raging between the DUP and Alliance since unionist councillors circulated leaflets attacking proposals to change the current policy.
In a leaflet circulated by unionists in recent weeks, they claimed to have examined the policy of over 100 local authorities in Great Britain and found that more than 90 per cent fly the Union Flag from various public buildings every day.
However, Alliance has carried out its own survey of all 400 metropolitan and county councils on the mainland and claims the results show the majority fly the flag on designated days only.
According to the Alliance figures, 36 per cent have a designated days policy, 34 per cent fly it every day while 30 per cent failed to respond.
Christopher Stalford of the DUP has defended the unionist survey and said that, despite the discrepancy between the two sets of figures, the new Alliance statistics disproved the previous claims by the party that the designated days policy was widespread across the UK.
Although the new statistics show an overall percentage of public authorities in Great Britain favouring designated days, five of the seven council types (London boroughs, Wales, unitary, metropolitan and county councils) have a predominantly year-round policy.
Only in Scotland (with 32 council areas) and the English shires (with 201) was there a majority in favour of designated days.
The Union Flag is a permanent fixture on only 50 shire councils’ premises compared to 82 respondents with a designated days policy.
At last week’s meeting of the strategic policy and resources committees, 11 councillors voted to remove the Union Flag from City Hall, with seven voting to keep it.
A total of 13 voted to remove the flag entirely from the Ulster Hall and the Duncrue complex – as opposed to the current designated days policy at those two sites – with seven voting against.
Earlier at the same meeting, an Alliance proposal to fly the Union Flag on designated days at City Hall, and a DUP proposal to keep the flag flying all year round, were both voted down by nationalists.
If councillors vote tonight to remove the flag from the City Hall, or opt for designated days, then legally it could be taken down immediately after the council session.
A protest has already been organised for outside City Hall from 5.45pm tonight – prior to the vote taking place.
The protest organisers have said it will be a peaceful protest and have called on anyone planning to attend to bring a Union Flag along with them.
When the unionist leaflets were circulated in the city a few weeks ago, the Alliance Party accused the DUP and UUP of “dirty tricks” and “misleading” the public.
The News Letter recently revealed that less than one per cent of people who responded to a public consultation on the flag issue want the Union Flag restricted to designated days.
A Belfast City Council report obtained by the News Letter shows that the option was supported by just 112 people out of more than 16,600 who responded.
Tonight’s protest at the City Hall has been organised by a group calling itself United Protestant Voice.
One of the organisers says he has been contacted by people from as far away as Scotland who will be attending.
Speaking to the News Letter last night, Billy Millen said he expects a large turnout.
He said: “I have been organising the Facebook side of it. There’s a group going from Tiger’s Bay, there’s a group coming from Dee Street in east Belfast, and there’s also a group coming from the Shankill.
“We’ve even heard of people coming over from Scotland so you could see a good crowd turning out.”