Belfast Telegraph

Festive sign row heats up Belfast City Hall's cold war

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Relations between unionists and nationalists on Belfast City Council are at their lowest point for years.

Unionists walked out of a meeting yesterday in protest over a decision to erect an Irish language Christmas sign at the side of City Hall, claiming it was in “breach” of an all-party agreement.

The Historic Centenaries Working Group and group party leaders were meeting for the first time yesterday to discuss developing a ‘diversity policy’ and the findings of an Equality Impact Assessment on the flying of the Union flag over the City Hall.

However DUP, UUP and PUP members withdrew alongside independent representative Frank McCoubrey minutes after the meeting started.

“All 21 unionists expressed their disgust and anger,” said longstanding Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers. “When an agreement is reached on issues between Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party they just go on ahead. There is no point talking things through and coming to a decision in a working group if it is going to be changed at a full council meeting.

“We will have to discuss whether the unionists will return to this group in the future. All of this is connected to the souring of relations which has been ongoing since the new council term in June.”

The issue of Christmas lights was raised during a turbulent meeting on Thursday night. Hugh Smyth of the PUP had requested that a ‘Happy Christmas’ replace the ‘Be Festive’ sign at the east entrance to City Hall.

During the debate Sinn Fein’s Jim McVeigh suggested that an Irish language sign, to be donated from the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road, should also be put up.

After a recorded vote Alliance, which holds the balance of power, sided with nationalists and the

proposal was passed by 28 votes to 21.

The DUP’s Lee Reynolds said: “The Alliance Party, Sinn Fein and the SDLP voted for an Irish language Christmas sign in the grounds of City Hall.

“This was in clear breach of the prior agreement that such issues were to be discussed by the all-party group. Furthermore, the Alliance Party had previously voted against such a sign at a previous council meeting. Trust and faith in a process cannot be built upon double-dealing by Sinn Fein and the SDLP and flip-flopping by the Alliance Party.”

Mr McVeigh has urged union

ists to rethink their actions. “Unionists are talking these difficulties up and creating the division themselves,” he said. “The council voted by a majority to put up a single Irish ‘Merry Christmas’ sign. What’s the big deal?

“They should stop trying to inflame tensions. We are different and we do disagree on these matters but we must have civil, reasonable discussion and if you don’t get your own way you don’t walk off the pitch.”

This row comes after Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile sparked a furore for refusing to present an award to a 15-year-old Army cadet.

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