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Rows over flags, a UDR memorial and now prayers before meetings: Is this NI's most divided council?

By Donna Deeney

Published 04/08/2015

Members at a meeting of Causeway Coast and Glens Council
Members at a meeting of Causeway Coast and Glens Council

A row over prayers being said before council meetings is the third political controversy to split one of Northern Ireland's new local authorities down sectarian lines.

And a row over flying the Union flag at council buildings all-year appears destined for the courts - with one councillor threatening direct action if the courts won't take the flag down.

A decision was recently agreed that would mean the Union flag flying all-year round at civic buildings, including at Limavady's former council offices, which was mainly nationalist.

Causeway Coast and Glens Council is shaping up to be one of the most divisive of the 11 fledgling bodies.

The three issues tearing unionists and nationalists apart are:

  • A proposal to name a room in a Limavady arts centre after a UDR captain murdered by republicans, which has enraged Sinn Fein.
  • Sinn Fein has begun a legal challenge to a plan to fly the Union flag at all council-run buildings 365 days a year.
  • Nationalists oppose a DUP plan for prayers before monthly meetings.

Councillor Gerry Mullan is among 11 councillors vehemently opposed to the prayers, warning that next year - when an SDLP mayor will chair monthly meetings - prayers will not be said.

Heated discussions about DUP councillor Mark Fielding's proposal to introduce the prayer in June forced chief executive David Jackson to seek legal advice.

However, the proposal was brought back for debate and passed by 19 votes to 11. Those in favour were all unionist, those opposed were nationalist.

Mr Mullan said: "We are there to address civic business. This is a council building, not a church, synagogue or mosque.

"Council staff will have no choice but to be there, so there is a real issue here where someone is being forced into taking part in a religious prayer at their work, which would never happen in any other workplace.

"We proposed a compromise of standing for a minute's quiet reflection which would allow people of faith of all kinds or indeed no faith at all to take part and not feel uncomfortable, but this was rejected.

"Setting aside a room where anyone who wanted to pray before the meeting could do so privately was also turned down.

"This is extremely problematic, ill-thought-out and unChristian and we will not be participating in it in any way, and next year when there is an SDLP mayor, prayers will not be introduced."

Mr Fielding said he wanted the new council to continue as Coleraine council had for four decades.

He said: "The vast majority of people still adhere to the Christian faith and it is only a short prayer.

"I know there was the suggestion of a minute's silent reflection but this is the democratic will of council and the way it was done at Coleraine council for 40 years."

While Sinn Fein did vote against prayers being said, councillor Dermot Nicholl said the party would abide by the democratic decision of the council.

But Sinn Fein is unwilling to accept the policy on flying flags.

The party's Philip McGuigan said: "The decision to fly the Union flag on council buildings in places like Ballycastle, Limavady or elsewhere has an impact particularly on the republican/nationalist community but also on any citizen in this borough who can express common sense.

"The Local Government Act allows for 15% of councillors to challenge any council decision that has a negative impact on any section of the community."

An independent councillor said if legal action did not work, the protest would be escalated - but would not say how.

"To protect against supremacists and to ensure the community continues to grow and advance, action will be taken within the council and the courts. If that appears to get us nowhere a more direct action will manifest itself to protect these community relations that are the ethos of republican principles we live out in the Glens," said Padraig McShane.

"Any flags of colonialism, supremacy and dictatorship will be removed."

He said even flying the Union flag on designated days would be challenged.

"The Orange Order via its influence in the Causeway Coast and Glens has picked a fight it is destined to lose," he said.

The Roe Valley Arts and Culture centre in Limavady is also the focus of fall-out.

Ulster Unionist councillor Aaron Callan accused Sinn Fein of hypocrisy after it objected to having a room named after Captain Marcus McCausland, killed in 1972 by the Official IRA.

As well as serving in the UDR, Mr McCausland - a Catholic - was a unionist councillor in the old Limavady Urban Council.

Mr Callan said: "Marcus McCausland was tortured by the IRA before they murdered him, even though he had resigned from the UDR because he was opposed to internment.

"I think it is incredibly hypocritical of anyone in Sinn Fein to put forward any kind of opposition to this, given their record for naming children's play parks after terrorists and trying to stir trouble changing the name of Londonderry."

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