Plans to fly the Union flag above Belfast City Hall only on certain days may have been intended to boost community relations — but instead they have plunged political relations back to the divisive depths of old.
With a decision to be taken imminently on whether to stop flying the flag all-year round, accusations of bullying, underhand tactics and hate campaigns have been hurled at unionist benches.
Councillors now speak of an “ugly atmosphere” and poisonous relations in Belfast’s ‘Dome of Delight’ — once infamous for its sectarian tensions, but which had seen steadily improving relations during the past few years of increased political stability.
The political spat has unfolded ahead of next month’s vote on whether to change the current flags policy. A report from the Equality Commission recommended that the Union flag should only fly on designated days, instead of 365 days a year.
A public consultation was then opened. Unionists said that out of the 17,000 responses, 15,000 were gathered through a joint DUP/UUP petition, and favoured no change.
But the DUP and UUP also distributed 40,000 leaflets in Belfast over the past fortnight accusing Alliance of “backing the Sinn Fein/SDLP position that the flag should be ripped down on all but a few days”.
Alliance, who hold the balance of power in the chamber, support the Equality Commission’s recommendation. Alliance described it as a “dirty tricks” campaign ahead of next month’s vote on the symbolic and emotive issue.
The leaflets included the telephone numbers for its headquarters and east Belfast office and encouraged people to call the party about its flag policy.
This, according to Alliance councillor Maire Hendron, resulted in office staff bearing the brunt of “abusive and nasty” phone calls.
“Quite honestly, this leaflet came as a bolt from the blue,” she said. “It has led to an ugly atmosphere. Of course this is bullying.”
She insisted Alliance has not changed its policy and has not “done a deal” with Sinn Fein or the SDLP.
DUP councillor Christopher Stalford, however, denied it was bullying and said he was proud to be involved in the leaflet drop.
“It is not bullying to suggest that people contact their elected representatives and make their views known on a policy issue,” he said.
But Sinn Fein’s Jim McVeigh said it was an “obvious” case of bullying.