UNIONISTS are putting pressure on the Alliance Party to back a campaign to keep the Union Flag flying from Belfast’s City Hall every day of the year after more than 15,000 people signed a petition supporting the national flag.
Nationalist politicians are attempting to stop the Union Flag from flying every day over the capital’s City Hall on a daily basis and, after months of debate and equality assessment, the issue is expected to come to a head in the coming weeks.
The Alliance Party holds the balance of power in Belfast City Council and therefore will decide the issue. The party has given strong hints that it will vote to only allow the flag to be flown on several ‘designated days’ – such as the Queen’s Birthday – each year rather than on a daily basis.
At present, the flag is also flown on designated flag days at the Duncrue complex and the Ulster Hall – which are owned by Belfast City Council – but other proposals to downgrade the Union Flag could see it flown beside the Irish tricolour or no flag at all being flown at City Hall.
All shades of unionism in Belfast City Council have united to campaign for the flag’s retention and a campaign by the DUP and UUP delivered a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to the council at the start of this month.
However, since then the DUP said that 3,000 more people had signed the petition, bringing the total number of signatures to 15,000.
The DUP’s Group Leader in the council, William Humphrey, said that all parties should “take note” of the figures.
Alderman Humphrey, who is also a North Belfast MLA, said: “We now know that 15,000 signatures have been submitted to the council opposing any change in the present policy on the flying of the flag at Belfast City Hall.
“We have been told by council officers that roughly 2,000 other responses have been received from public consultation.
“Those have yet to be analysed as to what the responses received said. However, we can now say based on information provided by the council that as a minimum, 15 out of every 17 responses received are opposed to any change in the present policy.
“That equates to 88 per cent support for continuing to keep the flag flying on City Hall. It is important that all parties take a note of that position.”
Earlier this year it emerged that there had only ever been a handful of official complaints about the flag – and several of those were from Sinn Fein members.
In June, an independent report about the issue prepared for the council was leaked to the BBC. According to that report, the most popular option was for the Union Flag to be flown on ‘designated days’.
The report also said that a survey of 400 people (62 per cent of whom were Protestant) who visited the City Hall had found that 54 per cent of people felt pleased, proud or comfortable to see the Union Flag flying every day, while 39 per cent had “no particular feelings”.
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 that it made them uncomfortable. Most Catholics (56 per cent) had no feelings on the flag.
Mr Humprey said: “Some parties pushed for a consultation on this issue. To their shame, the nationalist representatives have spent a great deal of energy on this issue, whilst their focus should be on delivering best value for the ratepayers of Belfast.
“They pushed for a consultation: they now have a clear answer. Those who think placating such intolerance will go unnoticed are mistaken. I would urge all parties to deal with this issue in a mature and sensible fashion; that means abiding by the continuing policy and ending any further interminable debate on this matter which serves only to damage good relations in the city.”
Councillor Maire Hendron, the Alliance Party’s Group Leader on the council, said in a brief statement: “The Alliance’s policy has always been to support the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings including City Hall on designated days each year.
“This is similar to the best practice in other parts of the UK.”
East Belfast Ulster Unionist councillor and former Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers blamed changes in the make-up of Sinn Fein’s council team in recent years which he said had seen “hardliners” raise issues such as the flying of the flag.
The UUP veteran said: “As far as I’m concerned, the vast majority of people never ever mention the Union Flag – and that’s people from Belfast, [all across] Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and the rest of the world.
“Of any members of the Roman Catholic faith that I’ve spoken to, only one person said: I don’t like that flag flying there; that’s not my flag.
“I would hope that people will see sense – people have got to remember that the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the Union Flag.
“Until such times as Northern Ireland is no longer a part of the UK, to me, why can the flag not fly there 365 times a year?
“Regretfully, it wasn’t a big issue until a number of changes were made in Sinn Fein personnel and a lot of hardliners in Sinn Fein have been upping the ante and certainly not helping relationships in City Hall or in the wider community.
“I sincerely hope that the Alliance Party would support us on this but with them you never can tell.”