Nationalist fails in bid to ban Union flag at NI courthouses

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A nationalist woman has lost her legal challenge to the flying of the Union flag at courthouses in Northern Ireland.

Lawyers for Helen McMahon, from Co Tyrone, claimed she is being unlawfully denied equal treatment by having the standard erected at full mast on designated days.

But a High Court judge rejected contentions that the practice breaches a requirement in the Belfast Agreement to ensure parity of esteem for both communities.

Mrs Justice Keegan said: “In my view it is clear from all of this that the general principles of the Agreement were taken into account by the Secretary of State.

“This includes the concept of parity of esteem. No new facts have emerged.”

Ms McMahon centred her case on the Union flag being flown at her local courthouse in Omagh.

Her bid to secure a judicial review was then widened out to include all other court buildings where it is erected on set days throughout the year.

In proceedings issued against the Secretary of State, she stated that she recognises and acknowledges the Irish national flag as her national flag

Under the current arrangements, according to her case, “the flying of flags in Northern Ireland does not reflect me as a member of the nationalist community on any level”.

Ms McMahon’s legal team contended that the practice, contained in the Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 goes against the Agreement.

Counsel claimed it defies a commitment to ensure equality for the identity, ethos and aspirations of each of the two main communities in Northern Ireland.

The court was told one solution could be to fly no flags on courthouses and public buildings.

But a barrister for the Secretary of State disputed any suggestion of constitutional legal force to the parity of esteem concept, describing it as “unsound”.

Mrs Justice Keegan rejected submissions that a previous decision on the flags issue in 2001 examined only individual rights, while failing to address the wider aspirations of both communities.

She added: “The commitment to equality must be framed by virtue of the fact that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom pending a decision by the people in relation to this.

“There has been no change to this constitutional position.”

Dismissing the challenge, the judge concluded: “In my view it is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State fulfilled his obligation to have regard to the principles contained in the Agreement in conducting a balancing exercise and as such the Regulations cannot be said to be unlawful.”