Unionists have vowed to stay away from Northern Ireland’s biggest St Patrick’s Day parade because of a row over flags.
A sectarian row broke out over the use of the Irish language on a new flag to be handed out by Down District Council during their annual carnival on March 17.
Ironically, the flag — designed by the council’s Good Relations Forum — had been intended to defuse the tensions that arose last year when a Sinn Fein councillor insisted on carrying a 10ft Irish Tricolour during the procession.
It contains the symbol of a bishop’s mitre and crozier and includes the words ‘Downpatrick’ on one side and its Irish version, ‘Dun Padraig’, on the reverse.
Jim Wells, DUP MLA for South Down attended the carnival last year, but will not be there this Saturday in protest over the use of Irish.
“I most certainly will not be attending the parade,” he said.
“It is my personal protest against the adoption of Irish language on the flag. I believe this is a highly retrograde step. “Unfortunately, by adopting this stance they are alienating moderate unionists who would have very much liked to be associated with the the event.”
The 26-year-old Downpatrick event is widely considered to be among the most inclusive events in Northern Ireland and usually attracts more than 30,000 people.
DUP councillor William Dick in Downpatrick led the procession two years ago, but said that he too would be staying away.
“I have made it clear that I would not be going,” he said. “I was there three years ago and I was happy to lead it, but with the debate over the flag and the use of Irish on it, I believe nationalists are trying to drive a wedge between the two communities.
“This is a step backwards for community relations in Downpatrick and it is extremely disappointing that it has come to this.”
Every year Down council hands out thousands of flags with the red and white St Patrick’s Cross.
However, last year veteran republican and Sinn Fein councillor Eamonn Mac Con Midhe said he no longer supported the Cross of St Patrick, which he claimed had “a military background”.
Instead, he flew the Irish Tricolour at the front of the pageant.
DUP man William Walker said he had “no desire to attend Saturday’s festival”, adding: “And, the way that some councillors in Down District Council are getting on, they are not doing anything to entice me to go.”
Meanwhile, in Armagh the Parades Commission has decided to uphold its ruling to allow a loyalist band to parade through the city on St Patrick's Day.
Cormeen Rising Sons of William is set to hold a procession with 40 other bands and more than 1,000 supporters.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein have raised concerns about the march taking place on the city's biggest tourism day of the year.
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Last month the Belfast Telegraph revealed how deep divisions over the use of Irish on the new St Patrick’s Day flag had threatened the future of the annual carnival. The St Patrick’s Cross flag is a red saltire — or diagonal cross — on a white background. It forms part of the union flag, along with the Cross of St George and the Scottish Cross of St Andrew. A Sinn Fein councillor sparked a row over the flag of St Patrick last year, claiming it had been “militarised” because of its inclusion in the union flag. Now a proposed new flag has been objected to by unionists because of the inclusion of the Irish translation of Downpatrick — ‘Dun Padraig’ — on its reverse.