Monday 22 January 2018

Belfast could face legal action over restriction on Union Jack flying

Michael McHugh

BELFAST City Council could face legal action over a decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag which has sparked violent protests, the Democratic Unionist Party said.

The change to hoisting the flag only on designated days like royal birthdays was endorsed by nationalists and the cross-community Alliance Party at the start of December. Since then dozens of police officers have been injured by missile-throwing loyalists as ugly scenes erupted in Belfast and other parts of the North.

The DUP opposed the change and has lodged an equality complaint with the Council.

John Hussey, secretary of the DUP group on Belfast City Council, said the party has submitted a formal complaint to the council that it is in breach of its equality scheme.

"We believe that, both in its processes and in its decision over the removal of the Union flag, Belfast City Council made multiple breaches of its published and legally required equality scheme," he said.

"This is the first step towards a formal complaint to the Equality Commission and ultimately possible legal action."

Until last month, the flag flew every day of the year from the City Hall. Disputes over flags and symbols have been a regular occurrence in the North and the shift to flying the flag on 18 designated days a year has sparked some of the most sustained unrest since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Despite weeks of demonstrations in parts of east Belfast, some of which have descended into full-scale riots with bricks, golf balls and other objects launched at police lines, councillors have vowed not to reverse their decision on the flag.

Sixty-six PSNI officers have been injured in violence linked to members of paramilitary organisations.

The Alliance Party, which controls the balance of power on Belfast Council, has said the designated days option was in line with the recommendation from the North’s Equality Commission as an approach which would promote good relations between both sides.

The DUP statement added: "The DUP is committed to pursuing all political avenues to overturning the disastrous decision by Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Alliance Party and to repairing the harm to good relations and a shared future it has caused."

It said a public consultation overwhelmingly favoured retention of the previous policy of continual flying of the flag and rejected designated days.

"This made it clear that any change would have an adverse impact upon good relations in the city," the party's complaint to the council said.

It said flag policy underwent a full equality assessment in 2003/04 and the decision was taken that it should remain, adding that there was no substantial case that the policy had caused an adverse impact and thus no requirement to revise it.

The letter said disproportionate emphasis was placed upon a very small number of complaints and there was no adverse impact on employment or the usage of the City Hall by all its citizens.

"A survey of City Hall users supported the view the flag was not a source of a problem - only 3pc of Catholic users objected to it and only 18pc perceived others would have a problem," it said.

It argued that two of four policy options in a consultation prior to the decision were ill-defined or confused, including the one eventually adopted. It added that alternatives such as removal of the flag from other council buildings like the Ulster Hall concert venue but keeping it flying full-time from City Hall were not included.

The letter said: "How the advice received from the Equality Commission was represented was disingenuous. It misrepresented the role of the Commission in the process."

It said a staff survey highlighted that abandonment of the old policy would create a "chill factor" among Protestant employees.

"The conscious ignoring of this employment issue stands in stark contrast to the responsiveness to the small number of complaints that began this process," the complaint said.

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