Now you see it......

Belfast City Council votes to lower Union Flag

By Anthony Neeson


Rioting loyalists stormed the courtyard of Belfast City Hall on Monday night minutes after the City Council voted to remove the Union Flag (Jack) from the front of the building.

The flag has flown over the city hall since it was built in 1906. Last week, Sinn Féin and the SDLP voted at committee level to have the flag removed, provoking an angry response from unionist councilors.

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Following last year's council election, nationalist parties are now just two short of a majority at City Hall. However, on Monday, with the numbers against them, they backed an Alliance party amendment to remove the flag but still to fly it on 15 designated days. Alliance currently hold the balance of power.

Outside City Hall, while shoppers mingled in the Christmas market at the front, 1,000 loyalists carrying Union Jacks had gathered at the rear in anticipation of the vote.

Within minutes of the historic vote, some broke away and using bolt-cutters entered the courtyard of city hall and attacked the building, breaking windows and injuring security guards, PSNI officers and a press photographer. Three people were arrested.

The council had to adjourn for half an hour as police dealt with the situation.

After the crowd was dispersed, St. Matthew's Catholic church and nationalist homes in Short Strand were also attacked.

The flag was taken down at 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly said Monday's vote had been "a good day's work" but went on to criticize the policing operation around city hall.

"I have to say, and I don't use these words unless I really mean them, it was a disgraceful police operation, or lack of a police operation," he said.

SDLP leader on the council, Tim Attwood, said those who rioted were an "outrage to the democracy they claim to desire."

"This was an appalling spectacle, resulting in significant damage to property and, most alarmingly, injury to a number of those seeking to keep city hall secure, and our thoughts are with those who were hurt."

An angry Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said nationalist councilors were trying to undermine unionist culture.

"Sinn Féin are quick to use the language of parity and equality, yet where is the equality here when citizens of the United Kingdom are denied the right to have their national standard raised over a seat of local government," he said.

"This issue around the flying of a flag is part of a wider attempt by Sinn Féin, and nationalism in general, to undermine unionist culture and traditions."