The Union flag may not fly there every day any longer — but it is hard to imagine a building more British than Belfast City Hall, the Secretary of State has said.
In a hard-hitting speech at Queen’s University, Theresa Villiers has also accused those involved in recent loyalist rioting of dishonouring the Union and dragging down the economy.
Speaking at a Conservative event, Ms Villiers said efforts to promote Northern Ireland and boost its economy had been hampered massively by the scenes of recent violence being transmitted around the world.
Since early December, loyalist protests against new rules limiting the flying of the Union flag at City Hall have frequently erupted into major rioting.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said Northern Ireland couldn’t afford to spend a million pounds a week policing the protests and violence.
“The actions of those involved in riots are shocking and they are intolerable,” she said.
“They are dishonouring our flag, damaging the economy and risk weakening support for the Union. In other words, these people are undermining the very causes in which they claim to believe.”
The minister dismissed the argument of protesters who say they are defending their British identity from erosion by nationalists. “There is widespread agreement that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people,” she said.
“The territorial claim to sovereignty in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution has been dropped — something unionists had long campaigned for.
“I would argue that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is probably stronger now than at any point in its history.
“So the claim that Britishness is being inexorably and steadily eroded is simply untrue.”
The Secretary of State added: “The flag may not fly there every day right now, but it’s hard to imagine a building more steeped in British cultural tradition and symbolism than the Portland stone Victorian splendour of Belfast City Hall.”
She pointed out that the Agreement was supported by the PUP and others who represented loyalist paramilitaries and “protects both Britishness and Irishness”.
The Chipping Barnet MP added that celebrating “both of Northern Ireland’s two distinctive cultural identities should not be impossible in a United Kingdom which is now more ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse than at any time in our history.”
However, she expressed concern that “some parts of the community feel left behind”.
Ms Villiers pledged to work with the Executive to address their concerns, such as how more investment and jobs can be attracted, and called on people to work together to overcome sectarian division.
“It can’t be right that so many children here are educated completely separately, that public housing remains so segregated and that since the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement the number of so-called peace walls has gone up,” she said.
“A shared future can’t be imposed from London,” she said, warning that if division and violence was not replaced by dialogue the consequences would “be to the detriment of everyone who lives here.”