The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has said it will take action to arrange for the removal of flags and banners "where there is clear community support" for such a move. But it has stressed that it will not do so if it would raise community tensions or put staff or contractors at risk.
The DfI was responding to the outcome of a special meeting of Belfast City Council yesterday evening during which a Sinn Fein motion calling on the local authority to take legal action to force the department to remove all paramilitary flags and all banners erected without permission was passed by majority vote, despite opposition from unionists.
The republican party has confirmed that a similar motion will be put forward at a committee meeting of Derry City and Strabane Council this afternoon.
The motion put to Belfast City Council did not specifically mention ‘Soldier F’ – the former paratrooper who is due to go on trial over the deaths of two civilians in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday – but it was brought to the council amid tensions over the erection of banners displaying the Parachute Regiment insignia and messages of support for the Army veteran in areas across Northern Ireland, including on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast.
During and after the meeting, unionist representatives questioned the practicality of the move, asking if DfI or council employees would be expected to go out and take down flags from lampposts across the city.
Reacting to the council's decision, the Department for Infrastructure said it had "noted" and is "considering the outcome of yesterday evening’s debate."
“As the debate in the council chamber has illustrated, the illegal display of flags/banners continues to be a difficult issue for many people," a DfI spokesperson said.
“It is important to note that it is an offence for any flag or banner to be attached to a street lighting column owned by DfI without the express permission of the department. We do investigate complaints and take action if displays create road safety concerns."
The spokesperson added: “In line with current policy and as set out in the Flags Protocol, we will also take action to arrange for the removal of flags and banners where there is clear community support for their removal and where we are satisfied that removing them will not further raise community tensions or present risks to the safety of our staff and contractors. We work closely with colleagues in the PSNI in reaching such decisions.
“However, although we may have the power to prosecute, the reality is that prosecution does not solve the underlying factors that give rise to such displays and we need also to be mindful of the broader issues including heightening of community tension and compromising the safety of our staff."
The PSNI said the removal of flags is not its responsibility, but added that it will support DfI staff in the execution of their role.
"Police have noted the decision made by Belfast City Council. As previously stated, while the removal of such items is not the responsibility of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, we are committed to working with communities and partners to build a safe and inclusive society and will support DfI in the execution of their role should they request our assistance," a police spokesperson said.
Speaking after last night's meeting in Belfast, DUP and UUP councillors pointed to the number of republican flags and banners flown in areas of Northern Ireland and accused Sinn Fein of "total hypocrisy."