Deal on controversial Northern Ireland flag flying 'very close'
NORTHERN Ireland's political leaders have said they are close to an agreement on how to deal with the controversial issue of flying flags in the region.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness indicated that a breakthrough was within reach.
Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson said he was hopeful of an official announcement within weeks.
It is understood a deal on flags is one of a number of policy developments expected to be unveiled by the two men in the near future. New economic stimulus initiatives are also apparently being finalised around the table at Stormont Castle.
Progress has been achieved in recent weeks after a period of relative stalemate and ill-feeling between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Relations are believed to have improved following a series of intensive, behind closed doors meetings involving senior party figures.
Flags have dominated the political landscape of Northern Ireland over the last six months, triggered by Belfast City Council's decision to limit the number of days the Union flag flies over Belfast City Hall.
That move to only fly the flag on so-called designated days was met with fury by some loyalists. Weeks of protests followed, with a number descending into serious rioting and violence.
While the demonstrations have abated, a plethora of Union flags and Irish tricolours continue to be erected on lamp posts in loyalist and nationalist areas across Belfast and beyond. Many paramilitary flags have also been put up.
The controversy took another twist this week when it emerged that DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson had embarked on a £10,000 plan to erect flag poles outside five additional government buildings under his control to enable the hoisting of the Union flag on the designated days.
The high profile disputes over the issue have ramped up pressure on Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness to find a resolution.
At an event to mark the opening of a new £20 million wind farm project in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim today, the politicians said a deal was close on flags.
"We have proposals in terms of how we should proceed with this issue which we will announce in due course," said Mr Robinson.
"Hopefully within the next few weeks."
Mr McGuinness added: "The main point is that we appear very close to agreeing a way forward on how we should put in place a mechanism to deal with the issue."
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell warned Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson not to "concoct" a deal behind closed doors.
He said agreement could only be reached with an "open and inclusive" process.
"There are a number of divisive and controversial issues which we still have to deal with as a society moving from conflict," said Mr McDonnell.
"Flags and emblems is one of those.
"If we are serious and genuine about finding agreement on flags, parades and dealing with the past, then we should be working through these issues wisely and together.
"To date no inclusive agreement has been found on a way forward.
"We believe we can find a way forward working together. I wrote to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister two weeks ago and called for an urgent meeting of Party Leaders so we can begin to find inclusive agreement on how we address the issues surrounding division and the barriers to reconciliation and prosperity. To my disappointment I have yet to receive a response to my letter from either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister.
"We have learned at our cost that political fixes don't solve political problems. That is part of why there is a political impasse.
"If any parties venture down that road, we will come to further dead ends. The multiple problems and challenges that are now clear to all need a multiparty, cross government and comprehensive approach. Let us all deal with all the unfinished work of agreement politics".