Ten complaints about Union flag in 10 years... and now a £12k bill for ratepayers
There have been just 10 complaints in 10 years about the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall.
The disclosure, which follows a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, has raised concerns about value for money after city councillors agreed to spend £12,000 on an independent probe into when and how often the flag is flown.
Politicians, workers and the public will be quizzed as part of an independent Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA). It will report to the council in October.
The names of the complainants have been redacted from the paperwork released under FOI. But it is understood at least one of the letters came from Sinn Fein and another from an ex-party councillor. The documents also show there have only been six formal complaints regarding military memorabilia.
City Hall DUP leader Robin Newton said: "It doesn't surprise me. I do not believe that there are people in Belfast or from further afield who take any offence at the flying of the Union flag.
"I witness it every day with the high number of visitors and tours in City Hall. People come from all sorts of backgrounds and parts of Northern Ireland and I know that when Belfast City Council advertises for staff no applicants who are offered the job turn it down because of the flying of the flag.
"Ten complaints in 10 years is not representative. I cannot see it as an issue, except a political issue for Sinn Fein. I think that the ratepayers - both business and household - will be asking whether spending £12,000 on an equality impact assessment is a wise move representing good value for money and I would suggest that it doesn't."
Last week republicans denied orchestrating a campaign of opposition against the flying of the Union flag.
This week Sinn Fein met the Equality Commission to discuss the issue.
Councillor Jim McVeigh said the majority of complaints were made unofficially to Sinn Fein elected representatives.
"I am not surprised by the number," he said. "How many people do go to the lengths of making a formal complaint?
"There are tens of thousands of people who voted for Sinn Fein and you can be pretty sure many of those people are not happy and have raised these concerns with us.
"We would have much preferred that an arrangement be made for the flag to be taken down or a tricolour put up alongside it. It was not necessary to go to the point of an EQIA.
"The City Hall is the only local government building where the Union flag flies all year round. Even in the Assembly it only flies on certain days. What is so special about City Hall?"
Tim Attwood from the SDLP said: "You cannot put a price on equality. It is fundamental for a divided society."
At a council meeting in July, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party, which holds the balance of power, backed the motion calling for Dr John Kremer, of Kremer Consultancy, to consider updating the current flag flying policy and to re-assess the amount of memorabilia in City Hall in a bid to make the building a more neutral working environment.
Belfast City Council is the largest local authority in Northern Ireland with 51 elected members.
Currently the Union flag is permanently flown outside City Hall, outside the Duncrue Complex and at the Ulster Hall on 15 specified days a year.
The St Patrick Cross is flown at City Hall with the Union flag on March 17, and the European Flag is flown on May 9, Europe Day.
Sinn Fein wants the Union flag taken down completely or to have an Irish tricolour flown alongside it.
Complaints that led to a City Hall probe
The first written complaint was received on October 18 2001.
It read: "For the nationalist community it is in my view that the current display of flags, emblems and other symbols outside and within Belfast City Hall is exclusively unionist and British in character. The display of the Union Jack outside and within the building, in addition to the large amount of British royal and military-related material creates a working environment which is discriminatory."
The most recent complaint was made earlier this month.
It said: "My family and I made a visit to the famous continental market at Belfast City Hall. I along with my children was [sic] very offended to see the Union flag flying above the place."
A De La Salle College student raised the issue in 2009.
"My initial thoughts were that this new Belfast city Hall was a 'City Hall for all'. Yet when I arrived the only thing that had not been refurbished was the flying of the British Union Jack," the student said.