ARDS and North Down Council has abandoned plans to fly the union flag from war memorials and civic buildings all year round.
The decision, led by the Alliance Party and backed by the Greens and SDLP, sparked a wave of anger from Unionist politicians last week, as well as a flags protest outside Bangor City Hall.
In a midnight debate last Wednesday, the council decided to undo a change that Unionists voted through in January.
That change would have seen the union flag flying from 13 war memorials and five civic buildings all 365 days of the year.
The council will instead stick to its current rota, which sees the flag flying from four civic buildings all year round, while the local authority’s Ards headquarters only displays the flags on 15 designated days.
It will also fly all year round on three war memorials, while 10 more can fly the flag for a maximum of a fortnight in connection with November 11 remembrance ceremonies.
Unionists voted for that to be altered to all year round on all war memorials and council-owned buildings, but Alliance called in that vote for a second debate.
Due to the mechanics of the council’s call-in policies, the year-round flags move then needed a supermajority of 80% of councillors voting for it to pass for a second time.
At last week’s midnight debate on the issue, less than 60% of politicians voted in favour of the change.
Officials had listed the debate to be heard in secret, arguing that legal advice obtained as part of the call-in procedure meant that the public and press should be barred from knowing what happened.
But Unionists decided to bring the debate out in the open, airing it publicly.
With Alliance alone making up more than 20% of the local authority, plus three Green councillors and one SDLP politician objecting to the change, the outcome of last week’s vote was a foregone conclusion before the debate even started,
Nevertheless Unionists took the opportunity to vent their anger at Alliance, accusing its 10 councillors of trampling on the will of the people.
“This sets a precedent that is immoral, undemocratic, and brings shame on this council,” complained independent unionist councillor Stephen Cooper, who has spent several years pushing for the year-round flags move.
“All of Unionism, for once, stood together; it’s just a pity that the rest of this chamber couldn’t do so.
“I think it is indecent that we do not have flags flying at every cenotaph across this borough.
“[The change] is the democratic wish of the people of this borough, because they have voted a majority of Unionists into this chamber.”
DUP alderman Stephen McIlveen admitted that the debate would be fruitless, but argued that the change would clear up ‘an anomaly in [the council’s] policy’ by bringing all civic buildings into line on flags.
Several of his party colleagues went on the attack, with alderman Naomi Armstrong-Cotter accusing Alliance of prioritising its own policies over the democratic will of the public, while councillor Robert Adair said that the majority of voters were in favour of the change.
“Just because it doesn’t suit one party’s ideology, [they] can just block it and override what the people want,” he added. “That’s no way to conduct business in this council.”
Alliance largely didn’t speak on the matter, instead choosing to sit back and absorb the brickbats hurled their way by aggrieved Unionists.
The party’s council leader, alderman Alan McDowell, was the only Alliance politician to say anything during the debate, stating that their stance shouldn’t come as a surprise as they have a well-known policy of only flying flags on designated days.
“This party policy is a balanced arrangement, reflecting the policy in place for other government buildings in Northern Ireland,” said Mr McDowell, adding that the Royal British Legion hadn’t asked for flags to be flown all year round on war memorials.
He also pointed out that equality impact reports had warned of an issue flying the flag all year round from council buildings, as they are workplaces in addition to being used by the public.
That, feared Mr McDowell, could leave the council open to lawsuits if it went ahead with the year-round change.
In the end 22 councillors voted for the change, while 14 voted against – leaving Unionists seven votes short of reaching a supermajority.