There are concerns that a Sinn Fein motion to introduce the sale of Easter lilies at Belfast City Council could be a pretext for banning the sale of poppies at the authority.
In recent days Sinn Fein’s group leader on the council Jim McVeigh said he would bring forward a motion in the near future calling for Easter lilies to be sold at the authority in the same manner as poppies.
His comments provoked a backlash from unionists, coming as they did on Remembrance Sunday weekend.
The Equality Commission defends the right of employees to wear the poppy, which represents all those who died fighting in the British armed forces, including thousands of Irishmen in both World Wars.
It deems the poppy as not directly linked to the Troubles and unlikely to create a hostile working environment.
However it regards the Easter lily, commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and long associated with the IRA, as having the potential “to make those of a different identity feel uncomfortable or unwelcome” and having been “directly linked” to the Troubles or local politics.
Mr McVeigh said he has “nothing but respect for the poppy and all those who chose to wear it,” but wore a white poppy last year as a mark of respect to the dead of both great world wars as “a silent protest at the industrial and pointless slaughter of the First World War” which included his great uncle.
“Next month Sinn Fein will be bringing a motion before Belfast City Council calling on the council to introduce a new policy of allowing our staff to wear either a poppy and or an Easter lily or both,” he wrote in a letter in the Irish News.
“We are also calling upon the Equality Commission to carry out a review of its guidance in respect of the wearing of symbols in the work place to allow employees to wear not just the poppy but also the Easter lily, should they chose to do so.”
But DUP group leader on the council Lee Reynolds hit back.
“At last months council meeting councillor Jim McVeigh was boasting about joining the PIRA and now he claims to be respectful towards armed forces veterans.
“He is becoming Sinn Fein’s version of Comical Ali [a reference to Saddam Hussein’s former spokesman, whose statements were widely disbelieved].
“In 2011 republican prisoner Christopher Donaldson lost a challenge over the right to wear an Easter lily in prison.”
He said that Strasbourg’s Court of Human Rights noted that the Easter lily was inherently linked to the Troubles and was inappropriate in the workplace and the communal areas of prisons.
Mr Reynolds expressed concern that Sinn Fein’s real intention was to ban the sale of poppies at the council, using the debate as a pretext for a vote on the issue.
A council spokeswoman said: “There is no council policy expressly referring to the wearing of the Easter lily or the poppy. However the council does have a policy on the provision of a good and harmonious working environment, based on guidance provided by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.”