Flag row set for legal challenge

Pacemaker Press 20/1/2014 'Councillors at Craigavon Borough Council voted to fly the flag all year round  at the Council's headquarters in County Armagh on Tuesday morning, Before the vote, the flag was flown at the civic centre on designated days.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 20/1/2014 'Councillors at Craigavon Borough Council voted to fly the flag all year round at the Council's headquarters in County Armagh on Tuesday morning, Before the vote, the flag was flown at the civic centre on designated days.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Legal action is being considered and a full investigation called for following a decision by Craigavon Borough Council to fly the Union flag at the Civic Centre every day.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP have both called for probes into the decision they say flies in the face of a £10,000 Equality Impact Assessment report which recommended the flag is flown on designated days as the previous 12 years.

Uproar erupted at Monday’s meeting when, despite a presentation from the report’s authors which recommended the status quo for the duration of the current council, the DUP proposed that the flag be flown for 365 days.

DUP Cllr Carla Lockhart’s motion was passed on a unionist majority while Sinn Féin Cllr Gemma McKenna’s motion to have no flags flying was defeated by a unionist majority and Alliance Cllr Conrad Dixon’s motion to maintain the status quo was also defeated.

The flag was flying before 9am on Tuesday. This means ratepayers will have paid £1,000 a week to fly the flag daily for the 70 days left of council. The Council’s acting Chief Executive Robert Colvin told Monday night’s meeting that he had requested legal advice. He explained the council must demonstrate that it ‘took all data into consideration’ and adding extra days to flying the Union flag ‘increased the risk of potential litigation’.

Sinn Fein’s Cllr Gemma McKenna said: “How can you justify increasing the number of days. What will the auditor have to say if we go against this report?”

Cllr Lockhart asked: “Can this go to a referendum for the people in this area?” But report author Mr John Kremer said: “That would be wholly exceptional.”

SDLP Cllr Joe Nelson said it was a ‘cold place for nationalists where compromise is not the name of the game’.

Cllr Lockhart said: “This is the right decision for the Council as it recognises our National Flag and that the Borough is part of the United Kingdom. I made the proposal that the Union Flag should fly every day on the Council’s Civic Centre and I welcome that other Councillors supported this compromise position.

“The Union Flag is the National Flag which if flown reflects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. As outlined by a respondent to the EQIA, the Union Flag is a symbol of unity between four nations and is testament to the legitimacy of a sovereign and democratic state to which its people have consented. It is not sectarian, it represents all in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK.

“By making this decision I trust it will go some way to reducing the number of flags placed on lampposts which ultimately become torn and tattered.

“The EQIA does not lead us to believe that this will cause offence to a large number of people. The presence of the Union Flag on designated days has not deterred the Council from recruiting and retaining a workforce that was broadly in line with expected rates for the local Protestant and Catholic communities.

“This compromise on our original proposal of seven locations will strike the right balance between acknowledging Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and not causing offence to those who oppose it.”

Cllr McKenna described the decision as ‘illogical and most likely illegal as it flies in face of advice from the Equality commission, legal advice and advice from the Councils Chief Executive.

“Monday’s decision by Unionist Councillors follows a full EQIA consultation which clearly showed there was no interest or support for the flying of the Union flag. Despite spending £10,000 of ratepayers money on the consultation, Unionist councillors chose to ignore the consultation results and all the legal advice given.

“This is the depressing final legacy of Craigavon council that has unfortunately been stained by unionist dogma and sectarianism.

“Sinn Féin will be seeking legal advice on this matter and are determined to ensure that those Councillors who have left the ratepayers of Craigavon facing further legal expense are held fully to account for wasting public funds and ignoring the rate payers.”

SDLP Craigavon councillor Joe Nelson has called for a full investigation by the Equality Commission into the decision by Craigavon Council to fly the Union Flag 365 days per year.

Cllr Nelson said that the decision was both insensitive and illogical.

He said: “The decision by Unionists on Craigavon Council to fly the Union Flag from the civic centre 365 days a year is insensitive, illogical and divisive politics at its worst.

“This was a settled issue that should not have been raised as the council begins to wind up its business in preparation for the handover to the new super council in April. Aside from anything else, it defies all logic that the council has decided to fly this flag 365 days each year when the council itself will only exist for the next 71 days.

“This decision totally ignores the findings of an Equality Impact Assessment, which cost the ratepayer £10,000, as well as legal advice given to the council 12 years ago when a decision on designated days was first taken.

“I will be contacting the Local Government Auditor regarding the incredible waste of £10,000 of ratepayers money for an Equality Impact Assessment on a settled issue within 71 days of the council winding up. I will also be asking the Equality Commission to investigate the matter as soon as possible.

“It is unfortunate that some parties have chosen to embrace divisive, sectarian politics as this council comes to an end. Designated days is a significant compromise for Nationalism and has served community relations in this area well for the last 12 years. That is the spirit in which the SDLP has engaged on Craigavon Borough Council and it is the spirit of a shared community with which we will continue.”