Community relations have been set back decades after an Irish tricolour was flown at a St Patrick’s Day parade in Downpatrick, it has been claimed.
Seven schools pulled out of the Co Down cross-community event yesterday amid fears there could be trouble when efforts to dissuade republicans from carrying the Irish flag failed.
A row erupted after Sinn Fein’s Eamonn Mac Con Midhe announced he no longer supported Down District Council’s 25-year policy of flying the red and white Cross of St Patrick, which he claimed had “a military background”.
Instead, he said he would fly the Irish tricolour at the front of the pageant.
And, despite 180 children being left disappointed, Mr Mac Con Midhe said he did not regret his hardline stance.
“The schools pulled out under health and safety issues, not because of the flag,” he told the Belfast Telegraph after yesterday’s parade.
“They were scared there was going to be trouble. The flag didn’t make them pull out, it was the rumour of trouble and we’ll have to get to the bottom of who started that rumour. The parade went off exceptionally well. There were a lot of cheers.
“One or two people had something to say but there weren’t too many. There was a lot of scaremongering about trouble, but that was negated on the day.
“How could community relations be set back 25 years because of a flag? The DUP, UUP and SDLP now need to get into the issues of accommodation.”
Traditionally, around 30,000 spectators attend the annual St Patrick’s Day festival through Downpatrick, the reputed burial site of Ireland’s patron saint. Some 65 groups and a large number of floats took part this year.
The St Patrick flag, a red cross on a white background, was adopted by Down District Council 25 years ago to secure cross-community support for the celebrations. However, DUP MLA for South Down Jim Wells, who attended the Downpatrick event, said the situation had been reversed.
“They produced an enormous tricolour,” he said. “I have to ask, did it have to be the size of Croke Park? It must have cost them a fortune.
“Northern Ireland's only cross-community St Patrick's Day parade seems destined to follow the example of other March 17 events in Northern Ireland where the Protestant community encounters an extremely hostile atmosphere.
“I understand that councillor Mac Con Midhe objected to the flying of St Patrick's flag at the event. However, I and other councillors were happy to replace this with the council flag to help defuse the tense situation.
“The fact that Sinn Fein councillors rejected this compromise confirms the widely held view that this whole affair is a political stunt to drum up support for Sinn Fein at the forthcoming elections.”
It’s understood the children, who prepared costumes and music as part of a Peace III initiative, will perform at a later date.