Unionists have accused Sinn Fein of “hypocrisy” after Belfast City Council backed the party’s call for legal action to force the removal of paramilitary flags and banners.
At a special meeting of the local authority this evening, Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie proposed a motion that the council should take legal action against the Department for Infrastructure to force it to remove all paramilitary flags and all banners erected without permission.
He spoke of “alarm at the increasing number of offensive displays of banners and paramilitary flags across Belfast”, adding that they are being “used to divide, offend and cause hurt to victims”.
Although the motion 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 – the call for legal action came after banners displaying the Parachute Regiment insignia and messages of support for the Army veteran appeared in many areas across Northern Ireland, including on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.
Despite opposition from unionists, and several failed attempts to amend the motion, it was passed by 34 votes to 18, with three “no votes”.
Voicing his disappointment at the result of the vote, DUP group leader Cllr George Dorrian said Sinn Fein’s stance on the issue “smacks of hypocrisy”.
“There is the well documented case of the [Raymond] McCreesh park – there is a banner there – and there are many other examples across Belfast. I don’t ever recall demands being made for those to be removed and I find it incredible that they would be expecting them to be removed if any action is taken,” he said.
“There are tensions at this time of year and this is just going to add to it. It won’t help those of us who are trying to work against it. You resolve situations by engagement and talking, not by threatening legal action against a department. That just won’t work in our view.
“This will inevitably lead to tensions as people look to remove flags. Do they expect council staff or DfI staff to go out and do this? Where does it lead to? Are you going to use police resources for this?”
Cllr Dorrian, who insisted taking the legal action isn’t the best use of ratepayers’ money, added: “We don’t want people to fall into the trap of now going out and putting more banners up and trying to go against this situation. The only people that damages are the people who are in support of the banners.”
Describing the call for the department to remove flags from lampposts as “not workable”, Ulster Unionist alderman Jim Rodgers warned that the broad wording of the motion could have consequences for many organisations across Belfast.
Claiming that the outcome of the meeting will heighten tensions during the marching season, he commented: “For this to come from Sinn Fein, sure all we see all over Northern Ireland and further afield has been their banners, their flags depicting former terrorists. It is just dreadful. This is total hypocrisy."
Fearing that there could be a backlash that could see even more banners being erected across Belfast, the veteran UUP man added: “To ask any government department, or even local government to go in and remove flags and banners, very few people would be willing to do that because someone could lose their life or be seriously injured, so even contractors are most reluctant to do that. It is not workable, it is not doable."
Reacting outside the council chamber, Cllr Beattie claimed it was a positive move for the city.
"I think it's an important day for the city, it's an advancement for the city, that Belfast City Council is standing up for the citizens of Belfast. No longer should Belfast City Council stand aside and allow those who want to erect banners or flags that are divisive and cause harm or hurt in this city, so it is important that we take legal action against the Department of Infrastructure, and hopefully the outcome of that will be successful," he told the Press Association.