Belfast City Council is set to back a plan that the Union flag should fly over the City Hall only on designated days — ending a century of tradition.
The controversial issue — which will be the subject of a 16-week public consultation from June 6 — will ultimately be decided in a crunch vote by councillors on November 1.
While unionist politicians have indicated their opposition to the change of policy, there is quiet acceptance that they would lose out in the vote and the flag that has flown over City Hall since it opened its door in 1906 will come down on most days of the year.
The council met last night and backed the plans to begin a public consultation.
The issue was the subject of a draft independent report which recommended that the Union flag only be flown on certain days of the year, such as the Queen’s birthday, to promote good relations. A proposal that the Irish tricolour be flown alongside the Union flag was rejected as the least favourable option.
The document — prepared by Policy Arc Ltd ahead of the forthcoming public consultation — followed objections to the current flags policy put forward by Sinn Fein.
It also included a survey of 400 visitors to City Hall last September in which 54% said they were proud or comfortable to see the Union flag flying every day.
Crucially, the Alliance Party, which holds the balance of power on the council, also backs proposals to raise the Union flag on selected days of the year. Speaking at last night’s meeting of the council, Alliance east Belfast representative Maire Hendron said: “My party’s position is well-known on the issue. We want respect for the Union flag. We do not want it used as a threat or weapon.”
West Belfast Sinn Fein councillor Gerard O’Neill said the debate was “long overdue”.
“There should not be any flag. Of course, I think there would be people in the city who would be justified in expecting us as political leaders to, once and for all, work through this issue.
“Unfortunately, the present situation regarding flags does not reflect that.
“There are many, many citizens who are uncomfortable with the present situation.”
He added: “I think people across the the city will be watching how this progresses. It’s a very live issue.”
However, DUP councillor Lee Reynolds said there was “no case for change”, adding that ambiguity was no longer an option.
He said: “We will approach this with the deepest strength of feeling.”
Speaking outside the council chamber, PUP councillor John Kyle added: “We consider that the Union flag is the flag of Northern Ireland. But we want a city that is inclusive... and that requires some sacrifices.”
Instead of flying the Union flag every day, four options have been considered:
1. Flying on designated days, such as the Queen's birthday
2. Flying on designated days plus extra days where appropriate
3. No flag or a new neutral flag
4. Two flags, with the Irish tricolour flying alongside the Union flag