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Frequently Asked Questions about the Recent Vote on the Union Flag at Belfast City Council

January 11, 2013 5:47 PM

Why did Alliance take down the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall?

-Alliance did not vote to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall.

-A Sinn Fein proposal passed at committee stage would have seen the flag removed permanently if Alliance had not proposed our amendment.

-Our amendment was in line with longstanding party policy and in line with guidance from the Equality Commission and the most legally defensible position.

-This position is in line with British tradition as stated by the College of Arms.

-This position best reflects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of United Kingdom at the same time as respecting those Belfast citizens who do not see the Union Flag as representing them. The flying of the Union Flag on designated days is a sensible compromise that reflects Belfast's nature as a shared city.

Why was the vote taken just before Christmas whenever disruption by protestors would have had a clearly detrimental effect on trade at the busiest time of the year for many businesses?

-The proposal to remove the flag was put forward by Sinn Fein. Alliance had no control over that timing.

-The timing of the vote however cannot justify the illegal and disruptive protests that took place in the Christmas period or the violence and intimidation that have occurred and continue to occur.

Sure all other Councils in England, Scotland and Wales fly the Union Flag 365 days a year, don't they?

-No.

-When contacted by the Alliance Party, 300 out of the 400 Councils in Great Britain responded. 52% stated that they followed the practice of designated days (including Middlesborough, Buckinghamshire and Wolverhampton)

What are designated days and who decides when they are? How can flying the Union Flag on only a few days a year respect those who want to see the Union Flag on City Hall?

-Designated days are set out by the Westminster Department of Culture, Media and Sport as a guide for when government buildings should fly the Union Flag, on the basis of the advice provided by Buckingham Palace. They generally mark the birthdays of members of the Royal Family and other significant dates.

-The dates for 2013 can be found here: http://www.culture.gov.uk/what_we_do/honours/7126.aspx

-The Crown body responsible for flag protocol in the United Kingdom (the College of Arms) has said that flying the Union flag 365 days a year is not a British tradition, and in fact flying the flag permanently is more in line with American traditions.

-Further to this the College of Arms is of the opinion that the permanent display of the Union Flag detracts from the significance of designated days such as the Queen's Birthday and Coronation Day.

Why did the Alliance Party not abstain and let Unionists and Nationalist Councillors just fight it out?

-To abstain on an issue such as this would have been an abdication of political leadership.The policy of the Alliance Party since 2002 has been that public buildings in Northern Ireland should fly the Union Flag on designated days.

-Had the Alliance Party abstained in this vote the outcome would have been that the Union Flag would not fly at City Hall at all, as Sinn Fein and the SDLP would have voted together, totalling 24 and DUP, UUP and PUP would vote together making 21

What about other Parties' positions? Have they been as consistent as the Alliance Party?

-Other Parties' positions on this issue have changed depending on when and where the question is asked.

-The UUP did not support flying the Union Flag on designated days at Belfast City Council but did at Parliament Buildings, and are on the record in the past stating "designating a maximum of 17 days out of 365 days in the year clearly indicates that while upholding the constitutional position of NI, the government has no intention of flaunting the Union Flag."

-The DUP supported designated days at Lisburn City Council, which you can see here.

-The PUP policy was supportive of designated days until shortly before the vote in Belfast, in response to legislation regarding the display of the Union Flag from 2000 they had stated "Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK" however; "there is no requirement to all day every day ensure that that glaring fact is appreciated."

-Whilst supporting designated days in Belfast, Sinn Fein and the SDLP have since voted against this policy in Limavady in favour of no Union Flag.This is also the first time that Sinn Fein have officially compromised by agreeing to the flying of the Union Flag on a Government or Civic building.

Why not fly both the Union Flag and the Tricolour? Would that not have been a better compromise? Keeps both sides happy.

-Alliance Party position since 2002 has been in favour of flying the Union Flag on designated days on Government and Civic Buildings.

-The Alliance Party doesn't agree with flying an Irish Flag alongside the Union Flag from a Government or Civic building as this doesn't reflect the current constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

-This position was also less acceptable to the Equality Commission as evident in the Equality Impact Assessment.

-Alliance recognises that the flag is a symbol of sovereignty. Unless the people of Northern Ireland determine otherwise, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.

-To fly the two flags together would reduce them to symbols of single political/national identities rather than symbols of sovereignty.

-On occasion, it may be appropriate to fly other flags, e.g. the EU flag, the UN flag, the Armed Forces designated days policy allows for this.

What was the equality guidance given to Belfast City Council?

-Belfast City Council took guidance from the Equality Commission in carrying out a comprehensive Equality Impact Assessment, a seven stage process which sought to find a solution which would promote good relations better than the current policy.

-The EQIA found that "it would appear that the policy options which best promote good relations are - in descending order of effectiveness:

-Designated flag days only;

-Designated flag days plus specified additional days;

-No flag or a neutral flag;

-Two flags."

In the consultation, didn't 90% of those who responded want the Union Flag flown 365 days a year?

-Many responses were signatures on a petition collected at the Covenant Centenary Celebration event. It is important to note that Government Departments take no account of such petitions (e.g. the Planning Service)

-When more substantive responses were considered figures of 350 responses in favour of continuing to fly the Union Flag 365 days a year, 350 in favour of flying the Tricolour alongside the Union Flag and 150 preferring no flag or a neutral flag, emerged from the public consultation.

-The Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) is very clear that the consultation stage of this process does not act as a referendum. Under the EQIA process the outcome of the consultation has to be weighed against legal and equality advice.

-There was also very low attendance at the two public consultation events held by Belfast City Council with 2 people attended one event along with representatives from 2 Belfast based organisations and 1 person attending the other.

What about these 40,000 leaflets blaming Alliance for taking down the flag. Who was behind those?

-Approximately 40,000 leaflets, in Alliance colours, were distributed in specific areas of Belfast colours by the DUP and UUP.

-These leaflets were delivered in the weeks leading up to the vote in Belfast City Hall by DUP and UUP elected representatives and volunteers.

-They were full of inaccuracies and were incredibly misleading. They specifically named East Belfast MP Naomi Long and encouraged people to contact both her office and Alliance Party Headquarters with their feelings on the issue. Naomi has not been a Belfast City Councillor since 2010 when she stepped down after winning the East Belfast Westminster seat previously held by Peter Robinson, the DUP Leader. Putting Naomi's name on the leaflet demonstrated that it had more to do with the DUP's desire to win back the Westminster seat than it had about influencing the vote of Belfast City Councillors.

-They failed to follow recommended guidance on political leaflets as they did not contain an "imprint" to state who had written and distributed them and in fact the DUP and UUP only admitted their ownership of the leaflet when caught red handed delivering them.

-These leaflets were clearly designed to raise the profile of the vote in Council, directly contributing to the rising tensions around the vote and linked to the protests and violence that have occurred since the vote. By directing the leaflet towards the Alliance Party, the DUP and UUP made Alliance the focus of those sinister elements who have since targeted the homes and offices of Alliance Party elected representatives.

Why didn't Alliance seek another compromise that may have been more favourable to Unionists than designated days?

-By distributing the leaflets described above, the Unionist parties demonstrated that they were not prepared to compromise at all on anything other than flying the Union Flag 365 days a year.

-Instead of turning a shared future success by sending out the positive message to the City and the world that for the first time in modern Irish history terms that Republicans and Nationalists had fully recognised the sovereignty of the Union Flag by supporting the Alliance Party, Unionists choose for vindictive reasons of vengeance and self-interest against Naomi Long and the Alliance Party to turn a positive into a very sinister negative.

What happens now? Where do we go from here?

-Moving forward it is essential to continue work to remove divisions from society to build a truly shared future.

-This can only be done through working together to seek shared solutions, not through the establishment of groups which seek to exclude those whose viewpoint may differ to yours.

-Alliance will continue its work, with and for everyone in Northern Ireland to create this shared future.

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