Belfast Telegraph

SDLP flag snub 'sectarian': Jeffrey Donaldson hits out over minister's ban on driving licence emblem

By Joanne Sweeney

A controversial decision by the SDLP not to include the Union flag on new driving licences for motorists in Northern Ireland has been branded sectarian and anti-British by the DUP.

The row over the new driving licence blew up on December 30 when UK Transport Minister Claire Perry announced that "British motorists will be able to fly the flag with pride in the new year".

However, the matter is devolved and the SDLP minister in charge of the Department of the Environment vetoed the plan.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would be raising the decision taken by Mark H Durkan with the Department of Transport in London.

He told the Belfast Telegraph that the DUP would be pressing for Northern Ireland citizens to have the option of the Union flag on their licences in line with drivers throughout the rest of the UK.

The Lagan Valley MP denounced the "unilateral decision" taken by Mr Durkan - first mooted in 2012 when his party colleague Alex Attwood held the position - and said it took his party by surprise.

He said: "I believe that the decision is sectarian, anti-British. It lacks any attempt to achieve a consensus as unionists were not consulted by the minister. The SDLP is one of the parties that supports the Belfast Agreement and at the heart of the agreement is the recognition of Northern Ireland's constitutional status as part of the UK.

"The agreement also talks about the need for consensus politics - but yet again we have seen the SDLP being involved in issues that are not consensus-building, such as taking down the Union flag down at City Hall, and now this decision to take Northern Ireland out of a UK-wide scheme.

"In the spirit of the Belfast Agreement he ought to have consulted his fellow ministers and he has failed to so."

However, a SDLP spokesman said: "There was no pressing case for introducing changes to the Northern Ireland driving licence and the minister has rightly chosen to avoid politicising the issue by retaining the current design.

"While others occupy themselves with rhetoric about driving licences, the minister has fought hard to protect DVA workers and defend the vulnerable against cuts to frontline public services."

A DoE spokesman added: "Department for Transport Ministers wrote to the Environment Minister in 2012 indicating that they planned to amend the Great Britain driver licence to include the Royal Coat of Arms and Union Flag. Driver licensing is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland and is the responsibility of the Minister of the Environment."

A spokeperson for the Driver & Vehicle Agency NI (DVA) said last week that licences issued in Northern Ireland would continue to display only the EU flag.

"In 2012 it was agreed that, recognising the particular sensitivities surrounding symbols in Northern Ireland, NI driving licences, which are produced for the Driver and Vehicle Agency in Swansea by the DVLA, should continue to be produced without the flag or crest," the spokesman explained.

Last week Britain's transport minister, Ms Perry, said: “People in this country rightly take pride in our national flag which is why I am delighted it will now be displayed on British driving licences.

“Celebrating Britain strengthens our sense of national identity and our unity. I will feel proud to carry my new licence and I hope others will too.”

However not everyone was so enthusiastic. A petition on the government website entitled “do not put the Union flag on UK driving licence cards” has received hundreds of signatures.

“We call on the government and the DVLA to reverse the decision to put the Union flag on all UK driving licences,” it says.

“Contrary to the Minister's recent announcement, many holders of a UK driving licence feel that the Union flag does not represent their national identity.”

Similar petitions have been started in Scotland and Wales, where several nationalist politicians have criticised the change.

One called “no Union Jack on Welsh licences” has already been supported by more than 4,000 people and a similar petition in Scotland entitled “stop Westminster from forcing Scots to have Union flag on driving licences” has reached 9,600 signatures.

Supporters want the licences to remain as they are or to feature the Welsh flag or Saltire in the Union flag’s place.

Background

The inclusion of the Union flag on new driving licences was announced by Transport Minister Claire Perry on December 30.

Any driver in England, Scotland and Wales applying to update their personal details will also be issued with the new licence with both the Union flag and European Union flag.

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