Union flag dispute likely to worsen following DUP Assembly motion
ANALYSIS:A weighted vote by the commission could sway the issue for unionists
As soon as one battle is fought another front opens. The flags row could take a curious and serious turn today which could add fuel to the fire that Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the Assembly yesterday hoped would be dampened.
Unionists and loyalists are still furious that they will no longer see the British union flag flying 365 days a year over Belfast City Hall. Instead they must be satisfied with 15 designated days.
But now the DUP is pressing ahead with a motion that potentially could lead to the flag fluttering over Parliament Buildings, Stormont, on every day of the year.
Nationalists win City Hall with the help of Alliance casting votes; unionists win Stormont with the aid of the Assembly commission’s handbook. It’s not an impossible scenario by any means and one that could make a bad situation worse.
North Down DUP Assembly member Peter Weir has tabled a motion before the Assembly commission today proposing, as a first move, there should be consultation on extending the number of days the British flag flies at Stormont.
Normally, when controversial issues come before Stormont there is either a compromise or rejection of particular disputed motions. This is because the Belfast Agreement dictates that in such instances it must have cross-community support. Those motions that don’t have such support fall or are moderated.
But the Assembly commission is a different beast. It has an overarching responsibility to “ensure that the Assembly is provided with the property, staff and services required for the Assembly to carry out its work”. That includes flags.
It has six members: the DUP speaker William Hay; DUP MLA Peter Weir; Leslie Cree of the Ulster Unionist Party; Barry McElduff of Sinn Féin; Pat Ramsey of the SDLP; and Judith Cochrane of Alliance. Three unionists, two nationalists and an Alliance MLA.
It also has independent powers and can act unilaterally. An Assembly spokeswoman explained yesterday that the commission operates on the basis of consensus. But where accommodation is not possible the commission handbook states that in “exceptional circumstances the speaker may decide that a weighted vote is necessary”. A weighted vote is where the vote of the members of the commission corresponds with the number of seats each of these parties has in the Assembly. This would mean that unionists would have a total of 55 votes and Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance would have 52 votes.
Various Assembly sources including Sinn Féin, and some with legal experience, accept that the commission can act independently and can impose its decisions irrespective of the actions or views of the Assembly.
Mr Weir said his motion is an initial move seeking public consultation on increasing days the flag flies at Stormont. A consultation would have a number of options and he did not rule out one of these being the flag perpetually above Parliament Buildings.
This all seems rather at odds with the spirit of the motion adopted in the Assembly yesterday condemning the violence that erupted over the Belfast City Hall row. As well as stirring further emotions it is also likely to bring lawyers into the frame and comes on a day when census figures should show numbers from a Catholic background in Northern Ireland are increasing.