BARKS from police dogs and protestors’ jeers could be heard in the heart of Belfast City Hall last night as councillors tetchily debated the Union Flag protests for the first time.
Police were present in the council building and civilian security staff stood inside the doors of the council chamber during last night’s first monthly council meeting since the decision was taken to only fly the flag on designated days.
While the debate was at points heated, councillors for the most part adhered to Lord Mayor Gavin Robinson’s plea to show leadership and to be “temperate” in what they said “because what we say has an impact”.
Sinn Fein group leader Jim McVeigh elicited an angry response from several unionist councillors when he accused them of being “led by the nose” by a small group of extremists.
Alliance group leader Maire Hendron said: “The impact on persons, property, police and the rule of law over the last few weeks has been unparalleled in the history of this Province.”
She added: “The reputation of this city, and the Province of Northern Ireland, is yet again being dragged through the mud. We are the object of derision throughout the world.”
UUP councillor Jim Rodgers said that there was no lack of leadership from his party. He again called for the protests to end, and added: “We’re doing our best.”
DUP councillor Ruth Patterson said: “I received a number of phone calls from people who would likely never ring me about anything, let alone the Union Flag.”
Cllr Patterson claimed that she had received calls from Catholics who told her “how disgusted they were at the decision that had been taken”.
She went on to claim that some of those who expressed disgust at the decision to remove the Union Flag were former Sinn Fein voters, and added: “But now even they see you [Sinn Fein] for what you are.”
Cllr Patterson, who was nearly elected to the Assembly last year, added: “If I was to see other flags being disrespected I would speak out against it [nationalist councillors shouted ‘You didn’t’] – it is wrong to disrespect any other nation’s flag.”
Last month Cllr Patterson justified her decision not to condemn the burning of an Irish Tricolour at a protest by claiming that republicans routinely burn the Irish flag at their marches.
DUP councillor Christopher Stalford said of the vote to remove the flag: “It was a decision that I don’t agree with, it was a decision that the people I represent don’t agree with; but it was taken and it was democratically taken and members were within their rights to vote for it as they saw fit.”
He added: “I have never, ever experienced a more visceral, angry response from the community that I represent . . . not only from people who vote unionist at election time either; people who are perhaps moderate nationalists . . .”
Sinn Fein former Lord Mayor, Tom Hartley, said that it was unfair of unionists to say that Sinn Fein had not made compromises. Pointing to the party’s support for Belfast council funds for Diamond Jubilee street parties and Martin McGuinness’s decision to shake the Queen’s hand, he said: “I don’t think if you looked back 10 years ago or 15 years ago that would have happened but it did happen last year.”
He added: “There are signs of this society changing.”
After the flag debate Alliance voted with unionists and against Sinn Fein to give public funding to loyalist bonfires.
Outside the meeting, protestors were prevented from getting close to the walls of Belfast City Council.
Several hundred demonstrators, many waving the Union Flag, arrived at the building after 6pm. But access to City Hall was sealed off by dozens of riot police and numerous PSNI Land Rovers.
Last month protestors managed to storm the rear gates to the grounds, and came close to getting into the building itself, where the council meeting that voted to remove the Union Flag was taking place.
Last night the protest was largely peaceful. At one point, as riot policemen filed along the front of the building, and stopped at the front entrance, the protestors shouted and surged forward. But all gates to the grounds were closed. The protestors, who were outside the perimeter railings, shook and tried to force the front gates, opposite Donegall Place.
At points, the protestors sang or chanted slogans, including derogatory references to the East Belfast MP Naomi Long.
The persistent slight drizzle may have dampened the protest, which dispersed around 7pm.