Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Deal on flag flying 'very close'

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness unveiled their 'shared future plans' today

Northern Ireland's political leaders have said they are close to an agreement on how to deal with the controversial issue of flying flags in the region.

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness indicated that a breakthrough was within reach. Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson said he was hopeful of an official announcement within weeks.

It is understood a deal on flags is one of a number of policy developments expected to be unveiled by the two men in the near future. New economic stimulus initiatives are also apparently being finalised around the table at Stormont Castle.

Progress has been achieved in recent weeks after a period of relative stalemate and ill-feeling between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Relations are believed to have improved following a series of intensive, behind closed doors meetings involving senior party figures.

Flags have dominated the political landscape of Northern Ireland over the last six months, triggered by Belfast City Council's decision to limit the number of days the Union flag flies over Belfast City Hall.

That move to only fly the flag on so-called designated days was met with fury by some loyalists. Weeks of protests followed, with a number descending into serious rioting and violence.

While the demonstrations have abated, a plethora of Union flags and Irish tricolours continue to be erected on lamp posts in loyalist and nationalist areas across Belfast and beyond. Many paramilitary flags have also been put up.

The controversy took another twist this week when it emerged that DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson had embarked on a £10,000 plan to erect flag poles outside five additional government buildings under his control to enable the hoisting of the Union flag on the designated days.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell warned Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson not to "concoct" a deal behind closed doors. He said agreement could only be reached with an "open and inclusive" process.

Mr McDonnell said: "We have learned at our cost that political fixes don't solve political problems. That is part of why there is a political impasse."

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