Politician warns of loyalist protests over proposed joint reception for Republic and Northern Ireland football teams
A unionist politician has warned that a joint reception for the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams could lead to massive loyalist protests.
Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, has said there could be a return to flag-style protests in the city if the historic reception - which councillors are due to vote on tomorrow night - goes ahead at Belfast City Hall.
Councillor Michael Long described the loyalist politician's comments as "extremely worrying".
He said new protests would be a "PR disaster" which would plunge Belfast back into "dangerous and deeply unpleasant times".
Belfast City Council will debate an SDLP motion proposing that the two teams are honoured before they head to France for the 2016 European Championships.
It is the first time in history that the two sides have qualified at the same time and under managers who are both from Northern Ireland.
Mr Hutchinson raised strong objections to the proposal at the council's strategic policy and resources committee meeting last month. Council colleagues were stunned as he warned that the historic reception, meant to promote reconciliation, could lead to massive protests.
In a reference to Republic of Ireland and West Bromwich Albion midfielder James McClean, the PUP leader said that Premiership players who refused to wear the poppy wouldn't be welcome at City Hall.
Last night Mr Hutchinson told the Belfast Telegraph that a joint reception for the two teams would lead to a similar reaction to the council decision to fly the Union flag on designated days only. "I warned them over removing the flag, that it would lead to protests should they go down that road," he said. "It will be the same again."
When asked about his comments on James McClean, Mr Hutchinson said it was disgraceful that a Premiership player "earning £40,000 or £50,000 a week" for an English team then refused to wear a poppy.
"My attitude is 'When in Rome, do what the Romans do,'" he added.
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Unionist councillors are opposing the proposal for a joint reception.
The DUP's Brian Kingston said inviting the Republic was inappropriate as Northern Ireland was the national team. Jim Rodgers of the Ulster Unionists said he would prefer a reception for "the British Isles teams" which would include England and Wales.
However, no DUP or UUP councillors have joined Mr Hutchinson in suggesting the reception would lead to protests on the streets. SDLP councillor Declan Boyle, who is proposing the motion, said: "I'm extremely disappointed in Billy Hutchinson's comments.
"I fail to see how anybody could find anything threatening in the idea of a joint reception. It is aimed at promoting reconciliation and unity, not division.
"I proposed this motion to celebrate the sporting success of Michael O'Neill and Martin O'Neill and their teams. In 2016, Northern Ireland should be mature enough to do that." Mr Long said: "I was very concerned and very surprised when Billy Hutchinson said there could be a return to flag-style protests if the council went ahead with this reception.
"That was a dangerous and deeply unpleasant time in this city that we all thought was over. It never occurred to me that anybody would want to protest about inviting a football team to City Hall."
Mr Long said that bringing protesters back onto the streets would be "unhelpful to promoting a positive image" of Belfast.
The motion is likely to be approved tomorrow with Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein support. Dublin City Council has already voted to invite both teams to a historic reception in the Republic's capital.