The body which runs the Assembly is to discuss the prospect of the Irish tricolour flying at Stormont for the first time.
In a potentially historic move, the Assembly Commission has agreed to debate the issue under the heading of ‘good relations’ between unionists and nationalists.
The meeting — the first time the issue has been on its agenda — will be chaired by Assembly Speaker William Hay and is to take place in the next few weeks, but any early resolution appears unlikely.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP insist the flying of the tricolour will have to form part of the discussions and view the commission’s agreement to consider the proposal as progress.
Unionists concede the issue is likely to be raised — but are adamant that Sinn Fein and the SDLP are “deluding themselves if they expect to see the Irish flag on display at Stormont”.
The commission will attempt to reach an agreement, perhaps over several meetings, which could result in a proposal going to the Assembly’s business committee, which decides what issues are put before MLAs overall.
With 54 unionist votes against 43 combined Sinn Fein and SDLP votes, however, any motion involving flying the tricolour would be defeated.
The ground-breaking debate comes as Stormont prepares to host its first major Orange commemoration in living memory.
In a written Assembly answer to former Sinn Fein chief whip Alex Maskey, the commission said: “(We have) not given consideration to the flying of the Irish national flag.”
But in further responses to Mr Maskey and the SDLP’s Conall McDevitt, the five-strong group added that since it is designated as a public authority it has a statutory duty to have regard to the “desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group”.
“The commission has agreed to have a future meeting specifically to consider ‘good relations’ issues,” it added.
Mr Maskey, who was the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, said he believed it was significant the commission was going to discuss the issue for the first time.
“It is not an issue that is going to go away. Our argument has always been that both traditions are given equality, or alternatively there is neutrality. I would be happy to see both flags flown,” the South Belfast MLA commented.
Mr McDevitt, also a South Belfast MLA, said: “It’s important that the Assembly has a good relations strategy as there is plenty of opportunity to make Parliament Buildings a more inclusive building which refects and represents all our traditions.
“The flags issue will have to be discussed. There are three possible outcomes from an SDLP point of view — both flags, no flags or an agreed flag. The symbols inside the building at present are representative of its history. It would be great to explore how that could change.”
But the DUP’s member on the commission, Peter Weir, said nationalists were “deluding themselves” if they think the tricolour is going to be flying above Stormont.
“The reality is we are part of the United Kingdom where the flag is the Union Jack, and the sooner Sinn Fein realise that, particularly if they are genuine about seeking reconciliation with unionists, the better,” he said.
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, a member of the Stormont task force attempting to revamp the Executive’s plan to tackle sectarianism, said: “It’s time for action if we are to transform our society, rather than simply manage division for generations to come.”
Should the Irish tricolour be flown beside the Union flag at Parliament Buildings?
YES says Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey
FOR me this is all about equality. I think it is significant that the Assembly Commission is going to discuss this for the first time. It is progress. It is another small step forward.
The issue is that at the moment there is not enough really being done to reflect the culture and identity of republicans and nationalists within and around Parliament Buildings.
It is all about seeing how |mutual respect can be best served.
It is not an issue that is going to go away. We want to see our rights respected and reflected in the building and our efforts will continue until this is resolved.
Our argument has always been that both traditions are given equality, or alternatively there is neutrality. I would be happy to see both flags flown. But the only other realistic option in terms of equality is that neither is flown.
There should not really be an issue about the flying of the Irish national flag in a power-sharing administration where both traditions are being treated equally and more than lip-service is being paid to equality.
My national flag is the Irish flag, I want my flag to be treated equally. It is as simple as that.
In arguing this I am not saying that it is necessarily always the case that one symbol, artefact, piece of memorabilia or tradition is directly comparable to another — the Easter lily displays, for example, compared against the annual poppy commemorations.
There are people who want their symbols cherished and respected, and this is a step forward.
NO says the DUP’s Peter Weir
If nationalists believe the Irish tricolour is going to fly above Stormont they are deluding themselves.
There is no doubt this is going to be discussed at the commission. I have no doubt at all this will be introduced by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, but they will find the attitude of unionists has not changed.
The only scenario I can envisage in which this could even be a possibility is some sort of bizarre circumstance where leaders of the European Union were visiting Parliament Buildings for some reason and the flags of all the European nations — including Ireland — were being displayed.
I don’t even see that happening any time soon.
The core principle for unionists is that we will not be flying the flag of any country other than our own.
Other parties can introduce whatever proposals they like, but if Sinn Fein or others think they are going to see the tricolour flying at Stormont they are really living in some form of parallel universe.
The reality is we are part of the United Kingdom where the flag is the Union Jack and the sooner Sinn Fein realises that, particularly if it is genuine about seeking reconciliation with unionists, the better.
This is being discussed in the context of ‘good relations’ in the Assembly but it is not going to help relations if Sinn Fein just go on seeking to put people in their trenches.
On this one they are banging their heads off a brick wall. They can keep pushing but the answer will still be no.