Belfast Telegraph

Liam Neeson’s freedom of Ballymena gala could be hijacked by flag protesters

By Chris Kilpatrick

Loyalist protesters are plotting to gatecrash the ceremony to award the freedom of Ballymena to Hollywood star Liam Neeson, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Several protests have been held in the Co Antrim town in recent weeks, a small number of which have turned violent.

But protesters are discussing targeting the red carpet event later this month at which Neeson will be granted the honorary title of Freeman of the Borough.

With Neeson (60) having already accepted the invitation for the dinner at the Braid Arts Centre and rumours of A-list film stars accompanying him, loyalist sources said it could provide them with maximum publicity as they express their opposition to the reduction in days the Union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

One said it would only take place if organisers were certain no trouble would follow.

“There has been a lot of talk this week about demonstrating at the Liam Neeson freedom event,” said a source in the town.

“There will be a lot of media and special guests in the town for it so it would be a chance for protesters to hog the limelight.

“Nothing has been confirmed as yet, but it isn’t being ruled out.

“It’s nothing personal against Liam Neeson, but given it will be such a high-profile event it is considered an attractive proposition.”

Yesterday, councillors in the town called on protesters plotting to target the ceremony to reconsider.

DUP councillor Martin Clarke said while he supports the right to peaceful protest, the idea of staging such a demonstration on the night of the Neeson dinner “made no sense”.

“This is a situation in Belfast, it doesn’t affect Ballymena as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Here the flag policy is that it flies 365 days a year at the town hall, council offices and memorial park.”

In November, Ballymena Borough Council unanimously agreed to bestow Neeson with its highest honour in recognition of his movie career. Neeson, star of hits including Taken and Schindler's List, has said he is proud to be given the prestigious civic honour.

Speaking after the motion was passed, he said: “Enormous strides have been made in my native Northern Ireland in the past decade, demonstrated by political, social and economic changes that came about through a combination of courage, generosity and persistence.”

The move came 12 years after DUP councillors objected to offering him the freedom over controversial comments attributed to the star in an US magazine regarding his upbringing in Ballymena.

Ballymena mayor PJ McAvoy last month said he hoped Neeson will bring a few of his celebrity friends, including Robert de Niro, to the celebration, which is expected to cost £25,000

“It is bringing publicity to Ballymena and will enhance the whole town on a global stage,” Mr McAvoy said.

Neeson will be the fourth Freeman of the Borough, after Ian Paisley, British Lions rugby hero Syd Millar and former mayor, the late Sandy Spence.

Last weekend there were clashes between protesters and police in the Ballykeel area of the town.

On Sunday evening people were prevented from making their way to Ballykeel Presbyterian Church as youths pelted police with stones, bottles and at least one petrol bomb.

A number of bins were also placed on roads and set alight.

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