City council set for landmark flag vote

A decision will be taken on the flag issue next week.

Members of Belfast City Council are preparing to debate the divisive issue of flags, in a bid to decide the way forward at the city's most iconic building.

Monday, 26 November 2012
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For over a century, the Union flag has flown at Belfast City Hall 365 days a year.

But that could change if the decision of a committee is ratified by the full council in a week's time.

Nationalist members of the council committee voted to remove the Union flag from the building, and also from the Ulster Hall and the council's Duncrue complex.

Sinn Féin Councillor Jim McVeigh said the removal of the flag would make city hall more welcoming for people of all backgrounds, but he said there is always room for compromise.

"We will be approaching the full council on Monday night with an open mind, but one thing is for sure - the current situation can't continue.

"It's going to have to change," he said. "We think the time is right for the council to adopt a policy which makes every citizen feel welcome and feel that this city hall belongs to them."

But unionist members refused to support the motion and DUP Councillor Lee Reynolds said they have promised they will oppose it all the way.

"On the night we will be proposing a rejection of designated days and we will be proposing a rejection of no flag," he explained.

"This council used to have flags flown all over the city. We already have the compromise. It was reduced to three buildings.

"On two of those buildings it was only designated days and on city hall it was 365 days. People seem to have forgotten about that compromise," Cllr Reynolds added.

The Alliance Party also sided with the unionists and said they will continue to block plans to permanently remove the Union flag - but they would support only flying it on designated days.

"In many people's eyes, this would be a big step, but it's a step that has to be taken," said Máire Hendron.

"I hope good sense will prevail. I would be very concerned about this city being shown in a negative light, and there is opportunity for that, and I do not want to see Belfast flashed around the world in another difficult situation," added the Alliance councillor.

While Belfast City Council was once unionist dominated, with the Ulster Covenant signed at City Hall - which was also the focal point of a mass protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement - nationalists now want to see more of a reflection of the new shared Northern Ireland.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin currently have 16 council seats, while the SDLP has eight, Alliance six, the UUP three and the PUP has two seats.

The decision now lies in the hands of the council, after it sought the views of the people in a public consultation over the summer.

The full council vote will be taken on Monday 3 December.