The Government has been accused of prioritising flag flying over critical challenges facing Northern Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A Sinn Fein MLA branded an Assembly debate on increasing the number of designated days the Union flag flies over government buildings in Northern Ireland as “absurd” and “bizarre”.
The DUP welcomed the move to add three more designated days and add two more buildings to the list of properties where the flag should fly.
However, the party said it did not go far enough and raised concern that laws determining when and where the Union flag could be flown may prevent it being raised above Stormont to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021.
MLAs debated the Government’s proposed amendments to flag legislation on Monday.
While the legislation is being amended at Westminster, the views expressed by Assembly members were placed on the record in the ‘take note’ debate at Parliament Buildings.
The Government committed to update the flags regulations in the New Decade, New Approach deal that secured the return of powersharing at Stormont.
It has agreed to add three new designated days – marking the birthdays of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Cornwall – on which the flag can fly from government and civic buildings. The number of buildings that can fly the flag on designated days is also set to be increased by two.
During the Assembly debate, Sinn Fein’s Emma Sheerin said the Government had failed to deliver on many other commitments made in the agreement.
“Like most people on a Monday in the middle of a global pandemic the Union flag isn’t my top priority today and I suppose it’s fair to say that Union flag is never my top priority,” she said.
The Mid Ulster MLA added: “In the current context I think this motion is at best bizarre and inappropriate and at worst insulting.
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic where thousands are worrying about their business going bust, being made redundant, balancing and managing the threat of Covid with the need to maintain employment and put food on the table.”
Ms Sheerin questioned the Government’s priorities.
“With everything that’s going on around us right now, ensuring the increased flying of the flag seems like a strange item to be making top of the agenda,” she said.
“It’s a damning indictment that this is something that they’re choosing to prioritise.
“Considering all the important commitments that the British Government are not honouring, it’s nothing short of absurd to me that we’re standing here today discussing flags.”
DUP MLA Keith Buchanan said flying the Union flag was a “basic but central expression of pride in Northern Ireland’s Britishness”.
He insisted the flag should fly 365 days a year on major civic buildings in Northern Ireland.
While welcoming the move to increase the number of designated days, he added: “It does not address overarching concerns we hold about the general direction of travel – nowhere else in the United Kingdom has designated flags legislation.”
Mr Buchanan continued: “It’s unjust that our national pride is subject to the veto of certain political parties.
“We on these benches seek a fundamental reform of these structures as we approach the centenary of our foundation of Northern Ireland.
“We will be strongly making the case to Her Majesty’s Government for greater assurances that the celebrations do not fall victim to inflexibility of the current legislation.
“The flying of the national flag is not divisive or disproportionate, its display from public or civic buildings does not invoke fear or division – it simply recognises Northern Ireland’s constitutional status and gives due regard to the principle of consent.”
His party colleague Christopher Stalford raised concern that the legislation would not allow for a one-off flying of the flag when Northern Ireland marks its centenary next May.
“I think that it would be the worst possible thing for us as a community if we descend into the trenches over the issue around the foundation of the state,” he said.
“People are going to have very, very different interpretations of that and I accept that.”
He said politicians needed to show a bit of “give and take” toward each other.
“Why shouldn’t, for example, on the actual day itself, why shouldn’t the flag be on the roof of this building?
“What would that really cost, what would that really hurt anyone to just on that one off day, perhaps, accede to that request, and show a bit of generosity to people who believe different things from you, but want to work with you to run the country.”