Stormont flag meeting is postponed

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Image caption,
The union flag currently flies for 15 days over Parliament Buildings at Stormont

A meeting planned for Tuesday to discuss the flying of the union flag over Stormont has not proceeded.

The Alliance party had said they would not be attending the Assembly Commission meeting.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP did not attend either.

The DUP was to propose a process of consultation on extending the number of days the union flag is flown.

The idea was due to be put forward by the DUP's Peter Weir on Tuesday.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Assembly said the meeting did not proceed as a "quorum was not achieved".

They said arrangements would be made to reschedule the meeting.

On Tuesday morning, the Alliance party leader David Ford questioned whether the meeting of the Assembly Commission, the cross-party group that manages Parliament Buildings, should go ahead in what he said was a "charged atmosphere".

Later on Tuesday, Alliance said it would not be attending the meeting "in light of the ongoing assault on democracy and the rule of law and last night's attempted murder of a police officer".

"We feel it is impossible to discuss the issue of flags at this time and we won't do so until this violence stops," they said.

"This proposal is destabilising at this critical time and will not do anything to calm tensions on the streets.

"We have therefore called on the Speaker to postpone this meeting. No party should be seeking to pursue this issue in the current climate."

The union flag currently flies over the assembly building for 15 days a year.

On 3 December, a decision was made by Belfast City Council to fly the union flag at city hall only on certain days.

The move led to loyalist protests, many of which have escalated into violence across Northern Ireland over the past week.

It is thought any new process could take several months to decide if dates like Ulster Day, the anniversary of the Covenant, or Remembrance Sunday should be added to the list of days when the union flag flies at Stormont.

If the proposal does not command a consensus, the commission members can vote in accordance with their party strengths.

No cross-community vote is required. It is thought the unionist commission representatives may be able to cast 55 votes, while nationalists and others command 52 votes.

That arithmetic discounts the vote of the speaker Willie Hay, but assumes the TUV, UKIP and the sole independent unionist will lend their vote to the main unionist parties.

Equality impact

As things stand, unlike Belfast City Council, the Alliance Party does not control the balance of power on the commission.

Alliance sources have said they are still taking legal advice on the matter, but believe such a proposal would have to be subjected to a full equality impact assessment.

On 3 December an Alliance party compromise to fly the union flag at Belfast City Hall on designated days, rather than remove it altogether as Sinn Fein and SDLP proposed, was voted through.

The decision has angered loyalists who have vented their frustrations in a series of protests, some of which have turned violent.

The homes and offices of several Alliance members have been attacked. A death threat was also issued against the party's leader Naomi Long.

Twenty-nine police officers have been injured during the disturbances in Belfast in the past week - the PSNI said they were treating a petrol bomb attack on a female officer on Monday night as attempted murder.

Alliance's East Belfast MP Naomi Long said the issue of flags at Stormont had been "dormant" since 1998.

"Those that are raising it need to ask themselves why they are raising an issue in this tense environment, in this hugely inflammatory situation when they know the consequences of another argument on the flags issue," she said.

One senior Alliance source told the BBC they believe what is being suggested by unionists "does nothing to build stability".

SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt said the attack on the officer on Monday was "a tipping point from which political unionism needs to step back".

"It is about not taking anything that might be seen as escalating in terms of this row over symbols in public buildings," he said.