DUP MP applauds loyalist flag protocol, but other parties sceptical of move
DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly has described yesterday's announcement of a new flags protocol by a Belfast loyalist group as a "welcome unilateral move" and called for a "positive summer without fear or intimidation".
However, other parties expressed their scepticism over the East Belfast Community Initiative (EBCI) announcement, saying that it would not prevent UVF terror flags being flown for four months of the year.
The EBCI, which is linked to the UVF, released a statement saying it had "obtained agreement from associated loyalist communities in the east Belfast, North Down and Newtownards area to implement a positive cultural expression protocol in relation to the flying of flags for the year 2018".
It is the first announcement on flag-flying by a loyalist group since 2012, when protocols were abandoned after Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag only on designated days.
The new agreement would see only "legal" flags - which the EBCI defines as those which "would not fall under the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2006 in relation to inviting support for a proscribed organisation" - erected on lampposts.
It has been reported that the "legal" flags could include "historic" UVF flags. Flags would be put up on June 1 and removed "as soon as practicable" after Ulster Day on September 28, and by October 7 at the latest.
But flags "kept in good condition" would be flown 365 days a year at memorials, murals or other areas of commemoration. Tattered, torn or damaged flags would be removed and/or replaced "at the earliest opportunity".
The protocol came into effect at midnight yesterday and "will not apply retrospectively".
The EBCI said the groups involved had "agreed to self-regulate to ensure that our culture is displayed in the best possible manner".
It added: "The EBCI will always engage positively in any discussions that will further our objective of protecting unionist cultural expression, and it is our firm belief that this protocol provides the framework for advancing that objective.
"We reaffirm our commitment to the rule of law, and it is in this context that we have obtained voluntary agreement that only legal flags will be erected by those loyalists associated with EBCI.
"We would hope that this commitment will be widely welcomed and we look forward to a peaceful summer of positive cultural celebration."
Ms Little-Pengelly, who reportedly engaged in the development of the new protocol, said "flags or any other emblems supporting paramilitaries have no place in our communities".
"I support all attempts to find resolution to these issues," she said. "I understand the protocol will cover the lower Woodstock and Ravenhill Avenue areas of south Belfast.
"Last year flags were erected in the south Belfast area which caused distress to residents. I stated my commitment to work with everyone to find a solution."
However, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly was less than impressed.
He said: "A UVF flag is a UVF flag and it's cold comfort to people living on interfaces and in mixed estates that it will be flown with DUP support for four months of a year.
"This is a case of people talking to themselves rather than engaging with those opposed to the flying of flags in areas where they are designed to intimidate."
North Down Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said that "all of Northern Ireland is a shared space and no one has the right to appoint themselves to decide who flies what on lampposts".
He said: "Any paramilitary displays will be perceived as the marking out of territory and at odds with the values of a shared society. The question is why paramilitaries still exist in 2018 and why they are still trying to tell people what to do, creating a culture of fear in the process."
South Belfast SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said: "Assumptions from loyalists that the greater public should in some way be grateful for the fact that these flags will only be flown from public lampposts for four months of the year is astonishing, and it doesn't address the many flags that are still up from previous years.
"The notion that because the 'nudge wink historical' UVF flags may technically not represent glorification of terrorism provides no comfort to those intimidated or unnerved by the emblem of a murder and extortion gang flying free on public furniture against the wishes of most of those who live and work there."
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "Until the joint protocol in relation to the display of flags in public areas is updated, the PSNI will continue to work with communities and respond to any issue where there is a concern for public safety or where it is believed a criminal offence has occurred."
He added that the PSNI "has not yet seen a copy" of the EBCI protocol, "so it would not be appropriate to comment further".