One year ago today the city council in Belfast took a historic vote to restrict the flying of the Union Flag on City Hall.
The decision ended a 106-year tradition – shocking and enraging unionists in equal measure.
Reaction on the streets was swift, heartfelt and at times violent, with demonstrators forcing their way into the City Hall grounds immediately following the vote in the council chamber.
There were a number of violent confrontations with police over several weeks before the protests became largely peaceful affairs.
Twelve months later, the Province-wide street demonstrations have been replaced by occasional larger parades through Belfast city centre. During that time, protest organisers have added a number of other grievances to the initial flag decision outrage, including anger at the perceived harsh treatment meted out to loyalist protesters by both police and the judicial system.
The outcome of last December’s council vote was dependant on the actions of the six Alliance members who held the balance of power between the unionist and nationalist blocks.
In the weeks prior to the vote, the two main unionist parties circulated thousands of leaflets highlighting the likelihood of Alliance voting against the permanent retention of the flag. When Alliance councillors then proposed the designated days option as expected, they were berated by unionists for ending the 365-days-a-year flag flying arrangement.
However, the party said the compromise was historic in itself as Sinn Fein had supported a motion which would see the Union Flag over City Hall on 18 notable dates – including Royal birthdays and anniversaries.
As a result of the backlash against the 29-21 vote, a total of 585 people have now been charged or reported with a view to prosecution. Around 260 have already been convicted of public order offences relating to protest activity and scores of police officers injured.
In March, victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer spent two weeks in prison on remand before being released on bail.
Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, he said there was no question of the protests coming to an end.
“The issue is not finished,” he said.
“There needs to be some kind of strategy put together and I see that coming about.
“People are determined as they ever were. Everybody keeps telling us that this is not an issue and that we should move on, but if it’s not an issue then why not put the flag back up and let’s talk about it then.”
Mr Frazer said the threat posed by dissident republicans was a much bigger issue than peaceful loyalist protests, and added: “We have had a situation now for over a year where we have been demonised, intimidated, jailed – everything that can be done has been done against us – but we are not going to go away.”
TUV leader Jim Allister supports the protesters who he says are “frustrated by a treadmill of concessions”.
He said: “It was a seminal moment when the Union Flag was torn down from the prime civic building in our capital city.
“That was not an isolated assault on our Britishness, but a new high point in insult and republican action in an orchestrated process that began in the Belfast Agreement.”
The North Antrim MLA repeated his assertion that “culture is Sinn Fein’s new theatre of war” and added: “All violence is wrong and there was never any justification for it. It damaged a good cause.
“Equally, the behaviour of the PSNI, even when it came to handling unionist elected representatives like Michael Copeland and Ruth Patterson, left a lot to be desired.”
Among those calling for an end to the protests is NI21 leader Basil McCrea.
Mr McCrea said the campaign has been counterproductive and been “badly handled” by the political parties.
“I just think it is unlikely that they will see the flag returned to flying 365 days a year, both for legal and democratic reasons, and the danger in fighting for something that you can’t achieve is that you end up depressed and thinking things are not going well.
“It was weak political leadership from unionists that got us into this mess and it’s time that we actually had some real leadership to improve and get us out of it,” he added.
NI Conservatives’ co-chairman Trevor Ringland said: “The constitutional position was agreed by referendum in 1998, that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom until the majority of people say otherwise.”
However, Mr Ringland said: “The use of violence and threat undermines the Union and it’s time certain elements of loyalism got their heads around that.
“The answer is to have designated days throughout the whole Province and then we relax about these things.”
Councillor Christopher Stalford
“This debate was entirely unnecessary and unwanted. Virtually no one had any objection to the policy of flying the flag 365 days a year at City Hall and this was a confrontation that was engineered by Sinn Fein in Belfast in order to keep some of their more backward-looking supporters happy.
I still believe the Union Flag should be on the City Hall all year round.
Over the last 12 months what was a sound and strong case for the retention of our national flag has been undermined by the actions of those who engage in rioting or attacking the police. As the First Minister said, the huge majority of people support our national flag, but they do not support behaviour like that.
Moving forward, I hope that all parties will work with the DUP to repair the damage this decision has caused.”
Councillor Jim Rodgers UUP
“Last year’s despicable decision by Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the SDLP to restrict the flying of the Union Flag was a blow against consensus politics and very much represented the politics of the past. That decision created untold anger and impacted community relations in a way that hasn’t been seen for years in this great city, the out-workings of which continue right up until today.
We should also remember Sinn Fein claim to be against majority rule – that is until they are in the majority.
The only way to see the flag back flying above City Hall is to get people onto the electoral register and to exercise their democratic right at the next election and vote for representatives such as those from the Ulster Unionist Party who will not be equivocal about the Union Flag flying 365 days per year above Belfast City Hall.”
Councillor Tim Attwood SDLP
“The SDLP wants Belfast City Hall to be a beacon to our citizens; welcoming and open to all. We recognise the democratic decision to fly the Union Flag on designated days was difficult for some but we believe it was an honourable compromise and reasonable way forward.
There is no doubt that the violent protests damaged business and the overall image of the city. I take great hope from the response of citizens in Belfast who fervently supported the innovative ‘Backin’ Belfast’ campaign and demonstrated their support for businesses in the city centre. In that spirit, the SDLP will continue to strive to build a more inclusive city which promotes a diversity of opinion. We want to use our collective political energies to set positive and ambitious city-wide targets for jobs and economic regeneration.”
Councillor John Kyle PUP
“Working-class Protestant or loyalist communities are experiencing a range of issues related to poverty and disadvantage.
These issues are giving rise to real anxieties and frustrations that are being compounded by perceived bias against Protestant culture and traditions. The decision to restrict the flying of the Union Flag was democratic if misjudged and misguided, taking no account of the feelings of those who went on to take part in mass campaigns across Northern Ireland.
However, the best response remains to overturn the decision democratically and this can only be achieved if people register to vote and use that vote effectively. All political parties need to engage and relate to those who are feeling marginalised and alienated from the political process, not vilify and demonise them.”
Councillor Jim McVeigh Sinn Fein
“Political unionism needs to accept that what happened at the council was a democratic decision and one that reflects the new Belfast.
That new Belfast is no longer a unionist city but one that has many traditions and political points of view, many of which are nationalist/republican in outlook. When there was a lack of leadership shown by political unionism we have witnessed certain individuals given a free reign to whip up sectarian tensions and lead a section of loyalism into another political dead end. That achieved nothing but ended in violence, with hundreds being prosecuted. This small rump of loyalism will not change the democratic decision taken.
Neither will they stop further change as Belfast becomes a more welcoming place and where all its citizens are treated equally.”
Councillor Maire Hendron Alliance
“The past 12 months has been a challenging time for Northern Ireland, as old divisions and tribal politics returned to the headlines.
Alliance stands firm behind its designated days policy as the only option available as we seek to build the shared future the majority desire.
We will not bow to pressure driven by clear political electioneering and not let our desire to do what is best for Northern Ireland falter.
The promises offered by the DUP, UUP, PUP and others have so far failed to become reality.
Only Alliance has clear policies to lead real change for everyone. The time for raising expectations has gone – now is the time for honest discussion.”