Relations between unionists and nationalists on Belfast City Council have sunk to a new low after a motion to remove the Union flag from flying above the City Hall was passed in committee.
The controversial issue will now pass to a full meeting of the council next month with Sinn Fein and DUP already drawing up their battle lines for scenes which could be reminiscent of the infamous ‘Dome of Delight’ days of the 1980s.
The motion — proposed by Sinn Fein — was passed at a meeting of the policy and resources committee yesterday.
The committee also supported removing the Union flag at two other council properties — the Ulster Hall and the Duncrue complex.
The decision turns up the heat ahead of next month’s full council meeting, with Alliance — who hold the balance of power in the chamber — caught between the two sides. The DUP, UUP and PUP all support the flag continuing to fly 365 days a year.
Alliance supports the flag flying on designated days, as recommended in a report by the Equality Commission, and has insisted it will never back a motion which removes the flag from the City Hall on every day. The final decision will be made on December 3.
Sinn Fein — which described Friday's move as a “step in the right direction”—said it knew the motion would be challenged by both unionists and the Alliance Party.
Jim McVeigh said: “The battle lines are clearly drawn in this case. The unionists have publicly said they don’t want change and Alliance have been consistent with their policy.”
But he said it was an “important step” in making the City Hall an inclusive place. “From our point of view, flags are used to mark territory and divide the city, to keep people out, and shouldn’t be used on civic buildings,” he added.
Mr McVeigh said that the City Hall should be a “neutral place”, adding that Belfast was “not as British as Finchley”, a reference to a remark made by Margaret Thatcher.
“The Union Jack is associated with one tradition in this city and is often used to exclude and intimidate others,” he said.
He said a civic flag was a possible alternative.
The SDLP also backed the complete removal of the flag.
Tim Attwood said: “With the decision now having been taken we look forward to full council in December, where we hope other parties will continue to join with us in supporting a City Hall that is truly shared by all people of Belfast”.
But the DUP's Lee Reynolds said his party is hoping Alliance blocks the move at the meeting.
“It is common practice across Northern Ireland and Great Britain and across the world. We're not asking for special treatment,” he said.
Unionists were responsible for distributing 40,000 leaflets in Belfast accusing Alliance of “backing the Sinn Fein/SDLP position that the flag should be ripped down”.
Alliance denied that there was any such pact. The party’s Maire Hendron, however, said it “will never” support Sinn Fein and the SDLP in their attempts to permanently remove the Union flag from the City Hall.
Ms Hendron said that she will be again proposing the Union flag be flown on the designated days.
“The Alliance Party believes that the Union flag should be flown with respect and dignity” she said.
“In the context of building a shared future in our divided society, we believe it is important that the recommendations of the Equality Commission should be followed in the matter of the flying of flags.”
In Northern Ireland:
- Eight councils fly no flag
- Two councils fly a neutral ‘civic’ flag
- Ten councils fly Union flag every day at one or more buildings
- Three councils fly Union flags on designated flag days plus a small number of additional specified days at one or more buildings
- Two councils fly Union flag on designated days at the headquarters building only
Information sourced from the Equality Impact Assessment Draft Report for Consultation, June 11, 2012.