“Pathetic and a last kick” was how Sinn Féin Councillor Cara McShane described a notice of motion calling for the Union flag to be flown on council and civic buildings all year.
Party colleague Councillor Brenda Chivers called it an “incitement of unrest in Limavady”.
The motion, brought to Causeway Coast & Glens Corporate Policy and Resources Committee by DUP Councillor Aaron Callan, called for the Union flag to be flown in accordance with guidance published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Councillor Callan said; “We believe it is right and fitting how we fly the national flag in our council area.
“I state that all parties who have declared their support both in letter and spirit for the Belfast Agreement and of the recent agreement – New Decade, New Approach, would recognise the fact that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom as annex A 1.1 stipulates that in the Belfast Agreement. The union flag represents that position in the United Kingdom and this policy would bring us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.”
The motion was seconded by UUP incoming Mayor, Councillor Richard Holmes who acknowledged how contentious the subject of flags can be.
“Flags and Northern Ireland are never easy bedfellows given the various identities of our citizens,” he said.
“The Union Jack unifies the United Kingdom of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England under one flag with each of the regions recognised in the form of a Cross of their Patron Saint.
“For me, it is a worldwide symbol of freedom and tolerance. I know many others see it differently.
“One of the many problems with the Belfast Agreement was lack of flags protocol for councils and we now find ourselves in a messy situation of every council for themselves with some councils not recognising the very country in which they sit in government, others on flag days and variation of this theme.
“Across our own council we have a variety of policies and this motion seeks to bring about a single policy common throughout.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Cara McShane described the motion as a “step backwards”.
She said: “This motion gives all the vibes of an identity and ideology that’s in desperation, I suppose it’s the last kick, it’s really pathetic and given we had these debates in 2015 and 2016, I see this as a step backwards.”
Councillor McShane proposed an amendment calling for legal advice and that the motion undergo an Equality Impact Assessment before a decision was taken.
Orla Beattie, SDLP Councillor for Benbradagh seconded the amendment adding: “I am going to be careful about what I say and how I say it because all too often flags are an emotive issue which heightens tensions, especially at this time of year, and I don’t want to add to that.
“Not everyone living in our borough defines themselves as being British, the council offices and buildings belong to all the ratepayers and as such everybody should feel comfortable using them.”
Limavady Sinn Féin Councillor Brenda Chivers commented on her “surprise” to see this motion “especially from a Limavady councillor”.
Councillor Chivers described it as “incitement of unrest in Limavady” adding: “Every year we are inundated from complaints and concerns from our constituents about the flags in Limavady.
“We have to be very careful, even over the last few days we have had emails about flags.
“Someone’s already beaten you to it, because there is a flag outside the council offices and the civic centre.”
Asking Councillor Callan to reconsider the motion, Councillor Chivers continued: “As sure as God, Union Jacks will go up, and then tricolours will go up, and we don’t want that in Limavady.
“We all live together peacefully in Limavady, until this time of year when the Union Jack is pushed down our throats.”
Alliance Councillor Chris McCaw said he understood where people were coming from adding; “Northern Ireland is part of the UK and the Union flag is the flag of the UK but we need to remember we are a divided society with different narratives and that needs to be respected.
“Compromise and good faith is what’s needed.”
The Causeway DEA Councillor added that he took “great exception” to the language used by Councillor McShane, saying: “Talking about desperation and calling people pathetic, I don’t think that’s appropriate at all. There’s nothing pathetic about British identity but we do need to recognise there are multiple identities in Northern Ireland.”
DUP Alderman George Duddy also responded to Cllr McShane’s comments.
“Northern Ireland is far from its last kick and this is far from desperation no matter what Councillor McShane may say,” he stated.
“I am disappointed in Councillor Chivers talking about incitement in regards to what may or may not happen in Limavady.
“That by the very nature of that comment could well lead to that and that coming from a political party who has been embroiled in public disorder for generations.
“The Union flag is the flag of our country and many people do identify with it and I don’t see what the issue is. I’m very supportive of the motion but very disappointed in some of the terms and comments made.”
Councillor Cara McShane spoke again saying: “I don’t mean to cause upset for the language I used and I apologise for that.”
Her amendment was defeated by nine votes to seven.
Summing up before the recorded vote on his motion, Councillor Aaron Callan said: “This is not about identity, it’s about recognising Northern Ireland’s part in the United Kingdom and the flag of Northern Ireland is the Union flag.
“We will have to follow through the proper procedures and the EQIA (Equality Impact Assessment) in due course, but we have to make a decision first.
“I believe this policy brings us in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, which is a position recognised by the Belfast Agreement which people in Northern Ireland voted on and endorsed.”
The motion to fly the Union flag on Council and Civic buildings every day carried with nine votes for and seven against.
For: UUP Alderman Hillis; UUP Alderman Baird; DUP Alderman Duddy; DUP Councillor Callan; DUP Alderman McCorkell; DUP Alderman McKillop; Councillor Knight McQuillan; DUP Councillor McLean and UUP Councillor Wilson.
Against: Sinn Féin Councillor Chivers; Alliance Councillor McCaw; Sinn Féin Councillor McGlinchy; Sinn Féin Councillor McGurk; Sinn Féin Councillor C McShane; SDLP Councillor Schenning and SDLP Councillor Beattie.