Belfast Telegraph

Seven schools quit St Patrick parade over flags furore

By Anne Madden

Seven primary schools have pulled out of the St Patrick’s Day parade in Downpatrick amid fears there could be trouble at the usually peaceful event.

Some 180 children from schools across Co Down were left disappointed after a row over an Irish tricolour flag led to their arts performance at the pageant being cancelled.

The row erupted after Sinn Fein councillor, Éamann Mac Con Midhe, said he would be carrying the tricolour in the parade and no longer supports the council’s 25-year policy of flying the red and white Cross of St Patrick.

Mr Mac Con Midhe claimed nationalists are unhappy with the flag and said he had hoped it would be withdrawn from use after being raised at the council’s Good Relations Forum.

His comments were reported in the weekly newspaper, The Down Recorder, some of which were refuted by Sinn Fein.

Mr Mac Con Midhe denied saying he did not care if unionists attended the parade.

The flag, a red cross on a white background, was adopted by Down District Council 25 years ago to secure cross-community support for the March 17 celebrations.

The organisers have succeeded over the years in creating a neutral, family day out.

The Sinn Fein councillor’s reported remarks led to a demonstration at this week’s council meeting. As a result of the furore, parents and teachers at the seven schools decided one-by-one since Monday to pull out of the festival.

Chris Darcy, principal of Ballynahinch Primary School, said that the schools decided they did not want to take part in something that “had become political”.

Andrew Gibson, education officer at the St Patrick’s Centre, which co-ordinated the project, said the children will perform on another date.

“We have been doing workshops with the children in which they have been making costumes, preparing songs and performing,” he said.

“The project was funded by the Peace III Initiative with Catholic and Protestant schools working in partnership.

“I’m disappointed the schools have pulled out but I completely understand and we hope to hold the performance on another date.”

Sinn Fein leader on Down Council, Mickey Coogan, said the flags issue had been “grossly exaggerated”.

“I would therefore encourage everyone, from all political, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, to come along and enjoy what will be a wonderful occasion,” he said.

Background

Up to 30,000 spectators are expected to attend the annual St Patrick’s Day parade through the streets of Downpatrick — the reputed burial site of Ireland’s patron saint. The cross-community parade is the highlight of a week-long festival of events held annually in the Co Down town. There are 65 groups and a large number of floats taking part this year. The parade stretches half-a-mile through the town and will last an hour-and-a-half. The colourful procession begins at 2.30pm on the Ardglass Road and finishes in Market Street.

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