Belfast Telegraph

Belfast council votes to take legal action to bring down flags and banners

The banner on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast
The banner on the Lisburn Road in south Belfast
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Belfast council has voted to take legal action against the Department for Infrastructure to force it to remove paramilitary flags, and banners from property across the city such as lampposts.

The special meeting on Monday was convened by Sinn Fein councillor Ciaran Beattie in response to a number of paramilitary flags and 'Soldier F' banners erected across Belfast.

Soldier F faces prosecution for murder and attempted murder on Bloody Sunday. Flags in support of the former paratrooper have been put up throughout Northern Ireland.

Although his proposal only referred to paramilitary flags and banners supporting British soldiers, Mr Beattie argued that all flags and banners that cause hurt or division should be challenged.

He said those "paramilitary flags and banners supporting British regiments are being used to divide, offend and cause hurt to victims".

He told councillors they should face up to their responsibilities saying there were businesses in the city being fined over illegal advertisements but no action being take on "divisive flags or banners".

"Anyone who sets out to put a flag or banner on a lamppost designed to cause hurt to our citizens, or hurt to families and victims must be challenged and we can't shy away from that.

"We can not longer say it is not our responsibility. It is our responsibility to protect citizens.

"We as a council will no longer stand for bigots, for those that set out to divide the city, for those that promote hate. We as a council should stand together. We shall do our best to make our city, a good city, a city for all, an inclusive city."

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The Sinn Fein motion proposed all banners or paramilitary flags removed from public property unless "permission is granted with protocols that protect citizens".

The UVF flags in Cantrell Close
The UVF flags in Cantrell Close

The motion was passed by 34 votes to 18 with unionists voting against. There were three abstentions.

During the meeting those opposed said the motion itself was "divisive".

The DUP, pointing toward McCreesh play park in Newry and how Sinn Fein "eulogise" those killed during the Troubles, said it was ironic the motion came from the republican party.

Councillor George Dorrian said that while he would prefer Ulster Banners and the Union flag only to be put in place, the erection of flags and banners was a tradition.

He said there had been progress in areas in bringing about protocols on how flags and emblems were treated and much hard work had gone into easing tensions.

"This sweeping action to remove all flags and emblems is not practical or helpful," he said.

"This instead will aggravate tensions while some are spending time on the ground working to improve community relations. That is where time should be spent."

Alliance Councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown said those looking to erect flags should consult with communities saying it was more about "demarcating territory than celebrating culture".

He said flying flags in shared spaced for three months of the year was "retrograde and wrong".

A People before Profit amendment to the motion on specifying Parachute Regiment and Soldier F banners was defeated.

Councillor Ciaran Beattie explained there could be no specified banner as every one needed to have planning permission. He said it was the case no flag or banner had ever received planning permission.

Alliance and the SDLP also lost bids to have the motion amended. Both parties called for all authorised flags and banners to be targeted.

SDLP Councillor Seamas de Faoite said people were "sick and tired" of the flags debate every summer and it was time to address the matter.

The UUP's Jim Rodgers said he was disappointed the special meeting was called on the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

"We need to start wising up and start building this city," he said.

"There is so much to be done. Time would be better spent building friendships and relationships - and that's what I want us to do."

Following the meeting, the Department for Infrastructure said: "As the debate in the council chamber has illustrated, the illegal display of flags/banners continues to be a difficult issue for many people.

“It is important to note that it is an offence for any flag or banner to be attached to a street lighting column owned by DfI without the express permission of the Department.  We do investigate complaints and take action if displays create road safety concerns.

“In line with current policy and as set out in the Flags Protocol, we will also take action to arrange for the removal of flags and banners where there is clear community support for their removal and where we are satisfied that removing them will not further raise community tensions or present risks to the safety of our staff and contractors.  We work closely with colleagues in the PSNI in reaching such decisions.

“However, although we may have the power to prosecute, the reality is that prosecution does not solve the underlying factors that give rise to such displays and we need also to be mindful of the broader issues including heightening of community tension and compromising the safety of our staff.

“We have noted and are considering the outcome of this evening’s debate.”

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