There was a hysterical response by unionists this week after the Irish national flag and the flag of the proclamation of the Irish Republic were seen to briefly fly above the Belfast Assembly at Stormont.
It is understood those responsible for hoisting the flags accessed the roof of the building in east Belfast without official permission. Both flags flew above the home of the North’s devolved Assembly for around 10 minutes before they were removed.
Major renovation work has been taking place on the roof this year so more people have had access than in normal circumstances. The prank led to a full PSNI police investigation
Democratic Unionist Assembly member Peter Weir called for a strong response to a “provocative” act.
“Whatever the motivation behind this there must be a full explanation from the Assembly as to who had access to the flag poles and who was responsible for this action,” he said.
“I have been assured by the Assembly that these were rogue actions and are being fully investigated.”
Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott said the flags were erected “to attract attention and cause offence and annoyance”.
“We are perfectly clear that the Union Flag [British Union Jack] is the only flag that should fly over Stormont in order to reflect and respect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.”
The flying of flags on official buildings in the North is a sensitive issue. In December 2012, a decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union Flag over City Hall triggered months of loyalist riots and street disturbances.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly accused unionists of hysteria and said all traditions must be respected at Stormont.
“This for some unionist politicians is a bigger crisis than anything that has happened over the past weeks,” he said.
“One thing that is lost on those who are objecting is the fact that they are the same parties who have not called for the removal of countless British and unionist flags at sensitive interfaces or from countless town centres bedecked with union flags.”
“Stormont has only just finished a consultation into flags and emblems in the grounds of Stormont and parliament buildings and one thing will be very clear; there is nothing about the place that celebrates or respects the nationalist tradition in this part of the island.
“We want to create an environment based on respect and tolerance and we would call on those who are now objecting so strongly to this incident to join with us in creating a policy that reflects that.”
‘CARRY ON REGARDLESS’
The incident took place as crisis talks about the ongoing stalemate over cutbacks ended without any breakthrough. However, a DUP proposal for a “pretend budget” is being given support by the British government. Under the proposal, the DUP Finance Minister Arlene Foster would issue spending plans to the power-sharing Executive and press ahead with budget cuts as if nationalists had agreed to them.
British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers said the DUP plan was a “step forward” and warned that public services in the north of Ireland would be “deeply damaged” unless the Stormont parties accepted “financial reality”.
Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy accused Villiers of being in denial that it is her government’s agenda which is the root cause of the current crisis.
“The Tories have no mandate in the north for their cuts agenda,” he said. “The local parties need to make it clear that Tory cuts to public services and the welfare state are unacceptable.”