Derry & Strabane Council have voted by majority to back Belfast City Council’s plans to take legal action if government officials refuse to remove offensive flags and banners from public property.
The motion was tabled by Sinn Féin Councillor Mickey Cooper after he requested Standing Orders be suspended at Tuesday’s meeting of the Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee. It was also backed by the SDLP, who proposed an amendment, and others.
This was despite Unionist objections, with UUP Alderman Derek Hussey warning that the move could open ‘Pandora’s Box’.
Earlier this week, Belfast Council voted to pursue legal action against the Department for Infrastructure (DoI) over its refusal to remove paramilitary flags and banners from lampposts and other property which it has responsibility for.
Colr. Cooper had proposed that the local Council support the motion which involves forcing the DoI to remove all paramilitary flags and banners without planning permission on DoI property, with due consideration of protocols protecting citizens across the Six Counties.
Mr Cooper said that loyalist paramilitary flags and banners erected locally in support of the Parachute Regiment and, in particular, Soldier F - who is facing charges of murder and attempted murder in relation to Bloody Sunday - were designed to hurt, in particular, the families of Bloody Sunday victims, some of whom attended this week’s meeting.
“This has brought an amazing amount of hurt and anguish to families and retraumatised them,” Colr. Cooper added.
He also said that there had been a number of initiatives undertaken recently to try to address this issue on the ground but that these had failed. He said there was an onus on the DoI to act. Colr. Cooper further said the British Ministry of Defence had stated publicly that it didn’t see any reason why the flags should be flown. He also condemned the removal and destruction of poppy wreaths from memorials.
SDLP Colr Martin Reilly said his party had always been clear that the erection of such flags and all paramilitary symbols was “wrong and, ultimately, illegal”.
Colr. Reilly proposed an amendment to the motion to the effect that, in the interim, Derry & Strabane Council considers what action it can take under the Clean Neighbourhood Act of 2011, which is designed to deal, he said, with graffiti, posters and banners making an area unsightly or unwelcoming. He said that citizens and visitors should feel safe and welcome across the city and district and he cited a recent incident in which people in a Donegal registered car were shouted at in one area to go back to Donegal.
“Every year, we have this issue,” he said. “People come to us and say, ‘What are you doing to take these down?’ Flags going up on public infrastructure is illegal.”
DUP Alderman Graham Warke said that, while no-one should be above the law, people should be allowed to demonstrate for those “who served in very difficult circumstances”.
He said that 90 per cent of the deaths during the Troubles were at the hands of illegal terrorist organisations but that there was no proper mechanism in place to investigate such crimes. He claimed the motion “raises tensions at the time of the year when some of us spend our time on the ground trying to reduce them.”
Alderman Maurice Devenney said there were also flags which caused divisions in the Council-owned City Cemetery and in the nationalist Bogside and Creggan areas, including those of dissident republicans.
Ulster Unionist Ald. Derek Hussey said he was fearful “of the Pandora’s Box that is being opened and, believe you me, there will be repercussions”.
He said there had been a lot of good work on the ground to ensure flags were removed after a period in various towns and villages locally, something Colr. Martin Reilly said was not the case in some areas.
Colr. Cooper said the motion related to all paramilitary flags and said it was designed to remove tensions, adding that they would continue to play their role in communities to de-escalate tensions, while Colr. Reilly concurred, and said that there were torn and tattered flags from last year blown off lampposts and into trees in some areas.
Colr. Reilly said that anyone putting up an advert, be it a window cleaner, a fast food outlet or a tour guide, would have their posters removed if they did not have consent. “So why is it saying it’s OK to have divisive flags of a paramilitary nature?”
Aontú Colr. Anne McCloskey said she completely agreed with the motion and said that, under the law, the flags should not be there. “To not vote for this motion seems to me to be supporting something that is illegal and right across the community there is an abhorrence of this,” she said.
The motion and the amendment were passed with nine members of the Committee voting for it, and two against. It is expected to be brought before the Full Council at its monthly meeting later in July.