AN otherwise quiet February meeting of Belfast City Council ended in stormy recriminations following a disputed motion brought by the DUP’s Ruth Patterson on the subject of the union flag on NI driving licenses.
Proceedings began on an equally bizarre note with Laganbank SDLP Councillor Patrick McCarthy alleging that while searching for Bible quotes on a council computer he was unable to access a Catholic website.
In general, however, the mood of the session was relaxed, with councillors perhaps anticipating the imminent conclusion of the chamber and the shift to the new ‘Super-Council’ in April.
The most sustained discussion came in relation to the Council’s role in coordinating agency responses to the flooding witnessed last autumn and summer 2012.
DUP Alderman Gavin Robinson outlined his personal experience with flooded constituents and urged the Council to resolve the issue “once and for all.”
SDLP’s Claire Hanna, representative for the oft-flooded Lisburn Road area, suggested the Council was doing a good job tackling flooding but stressed more remained to be done. She stated that giving out £1,000 hardship payments for every household flooded “was not a cost effective strategy.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Arder Carson then raised the plight of the homeless, highlighting a growing issue that he felt the Council should address. DUP Alderman Christopher Stalford replied that in his opinion “while homelessness is important the role of local government should be advocacy rather than intervention.”
And then the meeting sparked into life.
The DUP’s Ruth Patterson proposed a notice of motion over the displaying of the union flag on all future NI driving licences.
In the council minutes Alderman Patterson stressed that “the citizens of Belfast and Northern Ireland deserve to be treated as equals and in the same way as all other parts of the United Kingdom.”
In proposing the motion she alleged that unionists were the victims of double standards on the part of British ministers and attacked the role of SDLP ministers in ensuring that new driving licenses marked with union flags were not introduced in the north.
In a lengthy speech to introduce the motion which referenced Clint Eastwood’s latest blockbuster American Sniper she said: “I recently watched the film American Sniper and what is striking is that all those who mourned Chris Kyle did so with American flags and no one took offence to this.”
Here is a further selection from her speech: “The nationalist agenda is based on omitting our role in history. Our history in school begins with the Celts, ignoring pre-Celtic history. We do not call the displacement of indigenous people, our people, an invasion, but that is what it was.”
And she went on: “However it is the descendants of those Celtic invaders that took the flawed and unprecedented decision on December 12, 2012 to remove the union flag from Belfast City Hall.
“The true folly of this decision is hidden in the mist.”
She continued: “We have been told recently that equality is a tool to be used to break us. How dare you Gerry Adams. To use the disrespectful language you used to describe my community that night. How dare you.”
And then: “This treatment is nothing new, one only has look at the website of Trinity College and the depositions on the massacre of the Protestants of 1641 when the shores of Lough Erne ran red with the blood of Protestants. You tried to remove us by force but failed, do not be under any illusion that our removal now by litigation will be any more successful.”
And to finish: “Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom and we should have the right to the British flag on our driving licence. The flag is lifted not by the passing breeze but by the dying breath of every service man and woman who carried that banner to wherever tyranny threatened. The flag is part of our DNA.”
The exchanges following the motion were testy, as Sinn Féin’s Jim McVeigh alleged that Alderman Patterson was ignoring serious issues such as deprivation in lieu of further debates around symbolism.
SDLP Councillor Tim Attwood responded that “the flying of a flag does not constitute the definition of British identity.”
“Unionists agreed to the Good Friday Agreement yet each election year they retreat to sectarian issues he continued.”
A further ill-tempered exchange followed between North Belfast UUP Councillor Davy Browne who referred to Sinn Féin’s Niall O’Donnghaile as ‘son’, while UUP’s Bob Stoker added that that Cllr O’Donnghaile should stop speaking in a ‘foreign tongue’, that tongue being Irish.
The motion, which called upon the Council to condemn the Transport Secretary’s decision regarding not putting the union flag on local driving licences, was passed with the Alliance Party’s decisive support.
Alderman Patterson’s reaction was one of unmitigated glee, punching the air and shouting, ‘Yes!’
Until next month.